by Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant.
Stranded on the roof as the flood waters rise, we find three men, bible-toting Malcolm (Jomo Ray), angry E-Z (Maurice Redwood) and the deceased Lowboy (Sam Lothard) in Beau Willimon’s “Lower Ninth.” The two living men are coming to terms with the death of the third in their own unique ways. Malcolm recites liturgy while E-Z broods impatiently. They are trapped and unable to do much else.
The dead man is the least of their concerns. They don’t know if anyone is coming for them, and they’re not sure they can work together to survive. When the levees broke, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina devastated the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans. During the deluge, many people climbed onto the roofs of their houses and awaited their fate. Some survived. Some didn’t.
The brisk one-act play is an exploration of God, man and brotherhood set during the flood. P.S. It’s only a matter of time before Malcolm mentions Noah. Though it’s an expected analogy, Willimon steers the ark in a new direction with an interesting take on racism.
There are quite a few laughs in “Lower Ninth,” but it is by no means a comedy, other than in the strictest tradition of the word. For the most part, the playwright is trying to milk every bit of pathos from this unusual circumstance. Deep down, it’s a story of two men and how they perceive each other. Obviously, there is more to their relationship that meets the eye, but telling you that would venture far into spoiler territory.
These men on the roof seem diametrically opposed to one another, and you can’t help wonder how they became entwined, but it gets worked out in a satisfactory way. There’s a really clever bit utilizing Lothard’s talents, but again, redacted for your spoiler-free review.
Willimon’s “Farragut North,” his first major work is far superior to “Lower Ninth,” but the latter title still has its own charm. Also, “Lower Ninth” doles out some meaty roles to a mostly unserved group of actors – – African American men. Unfortunately, one of the characters is a drug dealer feeding a particularly nasty stereotype. Luckily, the other two roles defy stereotypical conventions. There’s a lot more to each of them than the color of their skin.
There is very little to the set and the play hinges on the actors. Director Edwin Lee Gibson keeps everything moving. Ray and Redwood have terrific chemistry together. There is a scene near the end that is shocking, but it brings the two men together in an unexpected way. It’s a deliberate culmination of all that has gone before, and the payoff is more than worth it.
Caravan Theatre of Pittsburgh brought a terrific director and a talented cast together in the beautiful refurbished Elsie Hillman Auditorium in the Hill House.
Ultimately, “Lower Ninth” is about hope, and couldn’t we all use a little more of that in the world?
“Lower Ninth” is at the Elsie Hillman Auditorium, Kaufmann Center, Hill House, 1825 Centre Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15219.