Lisa D’Amour’s play, Airline Highway, is that uncommon thing: a bolt-of-lightning Broadway original. Something that isn’t a bells-and-whistles musical. Something that isn’t easy. No movie stars. No lush song-and-dance numbers. No Hollywood franchise.
Instead, this is a challenging corrective to the traditional big-budget, star-powered fare of the Great White Way, focusing in its raw and elegiac way on the human discontents of the (rarely stated) post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. D’Amour herself is a fifth-generation New Orleanian.
Fellow New Orleans residents who have seen the show, mounted by Manhattan Theatre Club, have been giving D’Amour the thumbs-up about her tangy evocation of the characters and timbre of the city. “Lisa, you just gave me an evening at home,” one told her.
In this Steppenwolf company production at the Samuel Friedman Theatre, directed by Joe Mantello, it’s the day of Miss Ruby’s (Judith Roberts) “living” funeral at the Hummingbird Motel, a run-down dwelling on Airline Highway—the road that once linked the city to the airport before the Interstate made the route obsolete. Now, the hotels and motels that once peppered the route, lively-colored and fun, are fading and crumbling.
Miss Ruby herself is also fading away, unseen, in an upstairs room, the spiritual mother to the motel’s group of misfits and down-on-their-luck residents. They include Tanya (Julie White), an aging prostitute, stripper Krista (Caroline Neff), sharp transvestite Sissy Na Na (K. Todd Freeman), wry poet Francis (Ken Marks), handyman Terry (Tim Edward Rhoze), and the Hummingbird’s gruff, paternalistic owner Wayne (Scott Jaeck).
Returning to their orbit is the sexy and dangerous Bait Boy (Joe Tippett) who, now trying to craft a respectable life in Atlanta, wants to be known as Greg. He brings with him his stepdaughter Zoe (Carolyn Braver) who wants to use the life stories of the residents for a college project.
Her use of the word “subculture” is spat back at her, understandably, by Sissy Na Na, none too pleased at being treated as an area of study.
Speeches overlap, old passions flare into life, regrets resurface—all this alongside the sense of desperation felt by the residents about how life has bought them to this crummy place, and a sense of love and tenderness they have for each other and for the Hummingbird.
The music of New Orleans, so special and loved by D’Amour—celebratory, sad, everything in between—threads its way through the plot. “The play celebrates the underdog. It’s an homage to people who don’t really take center stage that often,” says D’Amour.
One recent Saturday afternoon the audience at a post-show talk enthusiastically pointed out the play had felt like an opera or ballet. D’Amour is heartened by this reaction, “because it is a demanding play. I don't think it's a show for everybody. The plot is not revealed conventionally, it unfolds in a sneaky, hidden way.”
D’Amour is a well-known experimental-theater innovator, who has won Obies (and many other awards); her play Detroit led to D’Amour being a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in Drama.
Airline Highway is packed with ingenious invention. The stage set shows the exterior of the motel, and the audience follows the piece’s nine main characters weaving in and out of focus, and in certain scenes being asked to make a choice of who to follow.
“I sometimes think of it as your eye bopping around the stage to different vignettes,” says D’Amour. “I see it as a piece of music, I really do. There is always conversation and counterpoint. You hear how people chime in. I was afraid of writing about New Orleans. It’s so hard to capture such a multiplicity of rhythms and idiosyncrasies. Even for someone like me who knows it so well, it just starts to feel fake, imposing a structure on it.”
In one of the most seductive sequences, one character gives a monologue while the others decorate the Hummingbird for Miss Ruby’s party; both words and actions are absorbing. “New Orleans has special days—Super Sunday, St. Joseph’s Day, and this is Miss Ruby’s Day,” says D’Amour.
The playwright was “hugely inspired” by pianist James Booker, a child prodigy who, as an adult, struggled with heroin addiction. Booker features in a cameo, while the rest of Airline Highway’s musical ballast comes from artists including Chris Kenner’s “Shoo Rah,” Dr. John’s “Mama Roux,” Jessie Hill’s “Ooh Poo Pah Doo,” and V.I.C.’s “Wobble Baby.”
“I do the Wobble at every wedding I go to,” says D’Amour, adding that the music helps to “conjure such a world so specific, and I prefer specificity over generalizing, idiosyncrasy over general assumptions, the local deli over Costco.”
You can still take the Airline Highway if you want to travel north of the city, it still takes you to Baton Rouge and beyond, D’Amour says. “There are a lot of small business on it, pawn shops. There were once eight or ten of these sorts of hotels when I was growing up, there are four or five now.”
She had heard of people who worked in the French Quarter who didn’t have the credit rating to get their own apartments who lived in a hotel called the Capri. “There was all this shady business there, drug dealing, prostitutes…then there was this other hotel, the London Lodge, that the set is based on.”
D’Amour’s friend, Danny Kerwick, the inspiration for Francis, took her to the London Lodge to meet a friend of his, another poet, and the details of fractured lives seeped in, such as the woman with two children who had been living with a Mexican construction worker, who she called the cops on one night. He was undocumented and languished in jail, future uncertain, while she moved in with a fortune teller who lived next door. “And so I started imagining this community,” D’Amour says.
As for the name of the motel, it was borrowed from a late-night greasy spoon in New Orleans, popular with cops, which D’Amour went to when she was in her senior year for late-night gumbo, red beans, and rice after a night out. “The name gives a sense of characters hovering, flitting around. There’s something very vulnerable, but crafty about the way the hummingbird.”
Is the desperation of the residents of the Hummingbird all from her imagination? “I would say the closest I came, sadly, was an uncle who passed away from drug and alcohol abuse,” says D’Amour. “It was lots of drinking and a lot of painkillers. He died in his early 50s; he’d been struggling with it for 50 years. He was an amazing guitarist.”
This uncle introduced D’Amour to art. “The addiction just had him by the throat. He went into rehab several times, and died six months before Katrina.”
D’Amour’s parents’ house was “fine” after the hurricane; her brother’s house had six feet of water. “I had cousins who lost homes completely. Everything that could happen to a family happened, except for someone dying because of the storm. We were lucky. Almost everyone had steady jobs and insurance and if they didn't have them, they had family so they could come back and rebuild.”
Other residents have not been able to come back: They were renting, or didn’t have the right amount of insurance, says D’Amour. “They live check to check. It’s very political as to who is able to come back.”
Katrina—whose 10th anniversary occurs in August—hovers at the edge of Airline Highway, and D’Amour knows some might want more mention of it than the three times it is invoked.
“It is in our lives, but especially around Jazz Fest (which opens this Friday) it is not something we’re talking about. We’re living our lives. If I suddenly had characters saying, ‘Oh, ever since Katrina those rich people had moved in,’ it starts looking like a WPA [Works Progress Administration] play."
Since Katrina, D’Amour has seen artists still use New Orleans as a base, but become more “mobile,” connecting with other cities, which is a positive, says D’Amour. A lot of young entrepreneurs have moved to the city, while Bywater is becoming the city’s artistic hub.
“New Orleans has always welcomed people, with the exception of Shell Oil in the 1980s,” D’Amour says. “But people who live there are skeptical. What makes the city what it is, is the knowledge of the past and a sense of ritual. If you don’t understand the past and don't understand rituals, you’re not going to go deep. That's what the city is struggling with.”
D’Amour has felt “in a visceral way in that year after Katrina ‘I think this city will be gone,’ but at the same time I wasn’t hungry or losing work because I was addicted to drugs like the characters in the play. I’m definitely a visitor to this world.”
She chose Miss Ruby’s “living funeral” as the play’s focus, because, as at her grandmother’s funeral, “on a funeral day you are thinking over their life and thinking over your life and thinking about whether you've measured up to their expectations.” The day is its own epic sweep.
As a child, D’Amour grew up, artistic candle burning bright and early, away from New Orleans in West Virginia, where her father taught at a university. He played guitar, drums, piano, and she grew up singing a lot.
“I was a really bossy 8-year-old. We lived on the side of a huge hill. I put on a Passion Play, where I made my parents’ whole dinner party walk up the hill where I crucified Jesus in the vegetable garden.”
On road trips to New Orleans she created more imaginary worlds, instructing her brother to tape radio plays: “I grew up obsessed with taping things. I remember hiding tape recorders under couches to tape conversations.”
In high school she started acting in plays and was an English and theater major at college in Jackson, Mississippi.
Her teacher knew the novelist Eudora Welty, and a young D’Amour met the great writer for tea. “She was quiet and clear and when she would talk about getting ideas for stories she would gently touch the back of her head as if ideas were coming from there.”
After college, D’Amour was “totally obsessed” with theater, and combined building a career in the arts, and securing grants for mounting her own work, had a succession of day jobs: Working around legal secretaries gave her “great fodder” for her pieces.
D’Amour is the only living female playwright with a “straight” play on Broadway this season: The Heidi Chronicles is by the sadly deceased Wendy Wasserstein, while Lisa Kron’s brilliant adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel, Fun Home, is a musical.
“It’s really awesome that Lynn Meadowe [artistic director of Manhattan Theater Club] has been such a champion of this play,” says D’Amour. “Of course there is a glass ceiling to be shattered, and I’m proud to be coming to Broadway with this show.”
With her collaborator Katie Pearl, D’Amour runs her own theater company, PearlDamour, which showcases their experimental creativity.
Their many plays and performance pieces have included Nita & Zita, which focused on two Romanian showgirls with a mysterious past, and How To Build a Forest, which saw a forest assembled and disassembled over a period of eight hours.
PearlDamour’s next project, Milton, is sourced in material the two women gathered over two years from five different towns with that name in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Louisiana, Oregon, and Massachusetts.
They asked residents of those towns a collection of questions: If there was one thing they could change about the world, what would it be; what advice would they have for future generations; why did they think they were here on this Earth; and what was something about their town that people didn’t know that they thought they should know.
“Katie and I also created a ‘Sometimes’ list of things that happened, like ‘Sometimes you’re given a Ziploc bag of kumquats straight from the tree,’ and ‘Sometimes you meet two lesbians who live in south Louisiana who run a pet cemetery.’”
D’Amour smiles. “You have all these assumptions about these towns, but they’re completely idiosyncratic. You can forget how many surprises there are out in this country, and how much self-invention there is. I think people get tricked into thinking they can’t be what they want be to be.”
A project in rural Pennsylvania will see the audience sitting in a field watching action unfold far away: people walking on paths in the shadow of a 60-foot tower. Eventually those characters approach the audience, and their story of complex pilgrimage is revealed. D’Amour says with a laugh, “My husband [the composer and sound designer Brendan Connelly], who is doing the music, says it’s retro-futuristic.”
She and Connelly met when he composed the “amazing” score for her play, The Cataract, 10 years ago, and have been married for six. His is a large Irish-Catholic family from New York, hers is French-Catholic, and her ear for stories and voices was trained hearing stories as a little girl. “My great-grandfather died long before I was born, but I can picture him.”
D’Amour doesn’t think places like the Hummingbird will survive. Like all cities, New Orleans is becoming more and more expensive; the poor and vulnerable are priced out.
“There are condos, rising real estate prices,” she says. “New Orleans has always been a city where there are three streets of really rich people, and three streets of really poor people. But as more and more new people move in and certain neighborhoods develop, more people will be tempted to sell houses and things change. I feel like a warrior, fighting to teach people what this city is all about and what we value, because stories are being lost.”
In this city of partying, there are more regulations and ordinances on parading. The unlicensed booze trucks are still there, “but I worry it’s getting harder and harder to make your own thing happen because everything is getting fancier,” says D’Amour.
The many-toned, colorful anarchy and spirit of New Orleans city is at risk, D’Amour says, “but there are enough people staying and understand where this all came from that it's going to be OK.”
Oh, your name, I ask, as we’re winding up. D’Amour laughs. “Yes, ‘Lisa of Love.’ I always say, if this doesn’t work out I’ll start writing romance novels.”