Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, signs of devastation linger throughout the Gulf Coast.
"There's this idea that somehow everything is OK now and they're back to normal, but that doesn't appear to be the case," says Tim X. Davis, coordinator of Bluegrass Community and Technical College's theater program and director of The Katrina Project: Hell and High Water, presented this weekend at the Downtown Arts Center.
"I've only been down there one time since the storm, and you can tell it's a different place," Davis says. "The landscape is completely different, the vibe of the place is different."
Davis spent years in the Gulf Coast region before moving to Kentucky, and he says his personal connection to the region drew him to explore a play that addressed the human toll of one of the worst natural disasters in American history.
While he was studying theater at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg in the 1990s, Michael Marks taught drama at Hattiesburg High School, and their professional paths crossed several times.
When Davis was searching for Katrina-related projects earlier this year, he was delighted to discover that Marks, along with Mackenzie Westmoreland, had penned a documentary-style drama called The Katrina Project.
"It's not unlike The Laramie Project in style," says Davis, and one of the reasons he selected the show was in part because of the many roles available for a new batch of incoming students to the theater program.
The show is a multimedia production, featuring video news clips and vignettes of characters who were affected by the storm woven together by rotating narrators. The play also features original music and multiple original dance numbers by Diana Evans Dancers, who co-present the show with BCTC.
Students play ordinary citizens: a cop from New Orleans; a family from Mobile, Ala.; a nun; a grandfather; and a young mother, among other characters whose lives were forever changed by the disaster.
Davis says he thought the show would be perfect for beginners because most of the scenes are short, but he underestimated the emotional weight of even smaller roles.
"It's a tremendously emotional piece," Davis says. "After our second read-through, half the cast cried again."
Davis says that getting to collaborate with Diana Evans Dancers has been a tremendous learning opportunity for the BCTC students, who participate in several dance numbers alongside Diana Evans Pulliam's highly trained dancers.
"The students at BCTC are like sponges," Pulliam says. "They are so open to everything I throw out and every note that they're given.
"There's some high- caliber talent at BCTC," she says. "It's been very inspirational and enjoyable for me to work with these new faces and a new production team."
Davis says that although Katrina is permanently etched into the memories of most American adults, traditional-age students at BCTC, who were about 8 to 10 years old at the time, had a different experience.
"It's like 9/11," Davis says. "They'd heard about it, but until you read these first-hand accounts and really see some of that devastation up close and talk to people involved in it, you can't understand just how widespread the devastation was, how ineffective the government response was, the death toll, the loss of life, the loss of property — how incredibly vast that was."
Davis says being in the production was an eye-opening experience for many of his students.
"That's one of the things you strive to do when you create art like this," Davis says. "It's not just to affect the people who are seeing the art, but to affect the active participants, for those of us who are doing it to be changed and to be altered in some way. I think they have been."