The gods moved to New Orleans for the music.
So goes the premise of Dan Dietz’s riff on an ancient Greek tragedy, Clementine in the Lower 9, the latest from Forum Theatre, opening May 23rd at Round House – Silver Spring.
Revered for its food, culture and certainly as a hotbed of blues and jazz, New Orleans also became the focal point of national attention when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in August 2005, ripping through the old city and pummeling much of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
Situated below sea level, the Lower Ninth Ward faced Katrina’s heaviest flooding due to the storm surge. Even as property and lives were lost, civic pride and sheer force of will showed the residents’ great resilience in the aftermath of the storm. The Greek gods couldn’t have found a better place to once again observe the indomitable spirit of mortal men and women than New Orleans.
Filtering elements of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon through a post-Katrina prism, Dietz’s play with music by Justin Ellington, picks up nine months after the devastating storm. Former piano player and nurse Clementine (Clytemnestra) attempts to rebuild her home with son Reginald (Orestes). She also awaits for her musician husband Jaffy (Agamemnon) who went to Texas after the hurricane to find work. When Jaffy returns to his damaged home, he is not alone. Whereas Agamemnon brought the prophet Cassandra home and met with Clytemnestra’s wrath, Jaffy brings home Cassie, a teenaged junkie he claims can predict the future.
Scott Patterson, who is making his Washington debut in this Derek Goldman-directed production, took time out from rehearsals to speak with DC Theatre Scene about his role and the seamless blending of music and story by Justin Ellington and Dan Dietz.
Jeff Walker: Tell us about yourself.
Scott Patterson: I am actually relatively new to the Washington DC area. I am a transplant from New York City. After living there for about ten years, I moved down here two years ago. I got married and started a family here.
I am a pianist, a composer, singer, and songwriter. This is my first production since moving to the DC area.
How did you get involved in this production?
I actually grew up with Justin Ellington and we were involved in a project together in Dallas. He told me that this production of Clementine in the Lower 9 was going on and that he thought I would be a good fit for it. I got in touch with Derek Goldman and we’ve been working on this production ever since.
Set in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina devastated the area, particularly the Lower Ninth Quarter, it seems very fitting that the flavor of the music is jazz and blues.
The music is the pulse and the heart of this piece and it gives the direction of where we’re going almost in a spiritual kind of a way. The music represents the other world, almost to the point that the music is its own character. It intertwines itself in and out of the dialogue, and underscoring, and really just ties the piece together- not only the idea that is spoken through the music but the inner dialogue as well.
You are the musical director and appear onstage, correct?
The music and the musicians, the character, is a part of the storytelling, and is right there onstage with everyone else. And there is just one – me. I am the Greek chorus, commenting on the story, interacting with the story and providing the music with my piano.
The blues and a family’s struggles after Hurricane Katrina in a story reminiscent of Agamemnon is such an intriguing mix. As the musical director, how has it been to work on this piece?
The word that comes to my mind is ‘imaginative.’ Working on this has caused me to use a lot of imagination, in just evoking so many different kinds of emotions. I think the music and the story go hand-in-hand together. The music has to evoke a spirit of happiness, and at the same time danger, and sadness, and profound desperation – which is all perfect for the blues – I mean that is pretty much the blues wrapped up in one.
As the chorus, I use the music as a liaison between what’s going on in this world of Clementine in the Lower 9 and the audience.
When this was performed in the Bay area of California, one reviewer said the music “cuts to the bone.” Is that a fair assessment of Ellington’s music?
I would say that that is very fair.
The idea of this family in turmoil – does that relate not just to rebuilding after the terrible storm but the fact that the family is in the midst of their own hurricane?
Absolutely. One of the things that goes along with this story and the production is water: the fluidity of water and that sense of Clementine and her family having no stability. They are kind of at odds and in this whirlwind of waves and water. I think that is a theme you will find going throughout the piece and in the music itself.
Without giving away too much, is there a note of hope that good things may happen for this family by the end?
I don’t want to give that away. I feel like if I answer that, I would be giving away too much.
May 23 – June 15, 2013
Produced by Forum Theatre
at Round House Theatre – Silver Spring
8641 Colesville Road
Silver Spring, MD.
Wednesdays thru Sundays
This is a family that is trying to rebuild their family, their home and their lives. Unfortunately, so many people post-Katrina have had to do that down there.
As your first foray into the world of Washington’s thriving theatre community, how has this whole experience been?
It is a great challenge but I am having a lot of fun. I can’t imagine a better way to get my acting life in the DC-area started than this experience. The cast is amazing.
What do you hope the audience will take away from Clementine in the Lower 9?
Oh, so much.
One thing I am appreciative of in this play is that it brings light to New Orleans and to what people went through post-Katrina. I know that is one thing people will walk away with, more of an awareness of those conditions.
Emotionally, I just want people to go on a journey and become a part of this family. And I want the audience to feel they are part of their experience and their struggle. Not just their conflict, but their joy as well, and go through everything with the characters.
Special concert by Scott Patterson
Friday night, June 14th, following the performance of Clementine in the Lower 9.
Hear Scott Patterson’s unique blend of classical, soul and rock. Described as ” futuristic, insightful, never stagnant. Patterson’s music might just move your body to the point of levitation.” At Round House Theatre – Silver Spring
8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD.
Scott Patterson’s music can be found at Afro House Productions.