Brothers from the Bottom Meets The Blind Community
written by David Benedetto
This past Saturday, the WRBH staff gathered at a table in the lobby of NOCCA’s Lupin Theatre and paced around the echo-prone lobby. Our eyes were glued to the torrent of rain and wind that had decidedly settled over the city so close to showtime. We waited hoping anxiously the water wouldn’t keep anyone from making it. Sure enough, almost an hour before showtime, the people started to race inside; umbrellas, walkers and wet hats in hand, they were there to see the show.
In promotion of his new play, Brothers from the Bottom, Wendell Pierce had stopped by WRBH to record an interview on our program Audio Portraits. Before leaving, he suggested doing a showing of the play in collaboration with us and inviting members of the blind community in New Orleans to join. He graciously helped us set up a day and donated tickets to the station to give out to blind organizations such as Louisiana Lighthouse and the National Federation of the Blind.
The play, which originated in Brooklyn via the Billie Holiday Theatre, was produced by Pierce and brought to New Orleans for a limited run in commemoration of the 10th year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Here’s what the New York Times had to say about it:
Brothers from the Bottom, written and directed by BHT Artistic Director, Jackie Alexander, deals with the hot button topic of gentrification. In the play, a real estate project threatens the fabric of a New Orleans neighborhood, and unravels the bond between brothers. In this “naturalistic play,” “the acting stands way above the flood line.” With a “terrific” performance by Mr. Pierce and a “particularly exuberant” performance by Kevin Mambo, the play is “ground[ed] by the actor’s sensitivity and verve. The neighborhood may need renewal and repair. These performances don’t.”
The setting: a duplex in the 7th ward co-owned by two brothers, Chris and Trey (played by Pierce and Wendell Franklin respectively). An imaginary wall separates the two sides and the upper portion of the stage serves as a front porch. The lighting by NOCCA was so impressive that when the first scene began (set in the late evening) I thought I was watching a movie or had somehow been transported through space and time to my own neighborhood block. The whole play takes place in this setting with actors walking in the aisles to exit the stage and interacting with the excellent audio tracking featuring jazz music and a plethora of car sounds. It relied not so much on sight gags or elaborate decoration, but mostly on the actor and actresses brilliant performances.
After the show, Wendell and the rest of the cast began the talk-back segment of the evening. He thanked the non-sighted members of the audience for being there and asked what they thought of the performance. One man stood up and spoke on how the play’s use of sound effects and expressive movements made the story easy to follow and added a wonderful texture to how the play was experienced. A man named Clarence Victorian who was there agreed with these sentiments and added the interesting staging allowed him to, “…see the play.” He went on to say that since becoming blind in 2001, this was the first time he has been back to a theatre for a show.
The cast then launched into a description of how they got involved with the production and how they prepared for their roles (you can watch this in the video above!). Deeming it time for everyone to grab some dinner, Wendell thanked the remaining members of the audience for being there and sent us on our way. Outside, not a raindrop remained and the skies shone bright blue.
At least for a while, anyway.