Watch out Clara Barton! Since 1881 this woman’s organization, The International Red Cross, has been out in the field offering help where they can. Barton, a Civil War volunteer, often pushed her troop of medical helpers into the forefront of the battle and did good. That was her ultimate goal, to do good. The Red Cross has been there for people when needed, but lately, especially with the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy, the news has been more about what they cannot, or will not do, than what they are doing or have done.
"This is in my play - the same complaints about certain organizations who are supposed to help," said playwright Jamuna Yvette Sirker whose play about the disastrous Hurricane Katrina will be performed for one night only at Barrington Stage’s Blatt Center on Saturday, Dec. 1 with a run-out performance at Proctor’s Theater’ G.E. Theater in Schenectady on Sunday, Dec. 2. "The estimate used of what they collected was maybe $.10 on the dollar, perhaps even less than $.01 on the dollar."
Hell and High Water was first seen off-Broadway at the Hudson Guild Theater in a multi-stages production directed by Lorca Peress. It was partially the result of a Lark Play Development Center workshop and it was followed by productions created by WAM Theatre Company and at Russell Sage College in 2011.
Its author is a survivor of the tragic attack by Mother Nature on New Orleans, the city where she was born and where she grew up.
"I wanted to ultimately write about surviving epic loss. I wanted it to be a truthful look, an honest depiction of this journey. It’s about how."
Born of Nicaraguan parents, Sirker spent her childhood in "uptown New Orleans" and, after the devastation of Katrina and her subsequent experiences of her city in the aftermath - which also included a nine-month wandering around the country, she finally settled in the Berkshires which had already provided a new home to so many of the disenfranchised New Orleans musicians and artists. "I came here as a refugee - it’s totally crazy - I came up a lot in years prior for vacations, spending time at Kripalu; I came here to study Yoga." After traveling around, taking artists residencies whereever she could she arrived back in this region and instantly felt at home. "I exhaled here for the first time in 9 months."
It was at Kripalu that she met her future husband, Tim Brenner. "I ran into a really cute guy - didn’t really know him, but there were instant vibes. Within a year we were engaged. Tim was a percussionist, but now he has a business, Brenner’s carpets, a green cleaning business."
Sirker had been producing theater before Katrina struck. What she saw, what she personally experienced, inspired her play which she never thought she’d find in a future event, but this year it all came popping back, for real and not for theater.
"As we were watching preps for sandy I was saying ‘they’re so fortunate. They learned from what we went through - a huge swath of the gulf with none of the political leaders prepared.’ I felt that there was much more prep this time around. I was impressed with Christie, and Cuomo and Bloomberg. What saddens me - which is where I see that my play is still relevant - a lot of what we went through happened all over again. It happened where no one was ready. Entire city blocks burned down. Our brains are not built to tolerate those levels of devastation."
One of Sirker’s favorite characters in the play is Katrina-Hiroshima, played originally and again in this staged reading by Frederick Mayer, says: "We can only give you additional relief aid if you got hit by half-a-hurricane meaning wind but no waters. Or waters but no wind. Which of course is impossible so don’t bother trying that one cuz NO ONE can get hit by half-a-hurricane." The play is arranged as a series of lessons and in this one realities never conceived of by most of the homeowners in New Orleans confront them. Teacher Alice, a character created from several of the people Sirker knew or met after Katrina hit, learns the lessons and takes them to heart. "Face it darling you are a sheep," a bag lady says to Alice after the woman tries desperately to qualify for aid in a world, an absurd world based closely on our all-too real one, and fails. "People sacrifice sheep. It’s been going on as long as mankind has walked the earth. Sacrifice the weak ones or the innocent ones. It’s in man’s nature," the Bag Lady tells her.
Sirker knows first hand how this all plays out in the hearts and minds of those who are the victims of not just nature but human nature. "All the characters are based on real people or real events. After Katrina, nurses and doctors were left behind by National Guard. They had to swim from their hospitals to dry land." Her presentation now in this region of her play came about because "two things made me do this: Seeing the sinilarity and hearing people ask "how do we get through this?" Exactly how is what the play seeks to show and tell.
The cast includes Frederick Mayer, Alika Hope, Alysia Cosby, Karen Lee, Frank LaFrazia, Enrico Spada, Kevin Craig West, Kent Burnham, Leigh Strimbeck and Tim Brenner. Julie Boyd, artistic director/founder of Barrington Stage Company and Phillip Morris of Proctors Theater have offered their spaces for this fund-raising event.
Ticket prices are PayWhatYouWill, but a $10 minimum donation is encouraged. Saturday’s Pittsfield performance begins at 7:30 p.m. and the Sunday performance is also scheduled for 7:30 p.m.
As for Clara Barton, well, she’s long dead and her organization - advertising like crazy on television in the voices and visuals of famous actors and politicians for your own ten dollar donations - can do what they can do. Your money will be going to the Actors Fund, a nationwide human services organization that provides emergency relief for performing arts and entertainment professionals in crisis. With so many of them affected directly by the devastation of New York City and coastal New Jersey and other places where these folks who lighten our days through their often difficult work live, this unusual effort on the part of theater folk for your future pleasure should be rewarded with your attention and your generosity.