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'Godot' Gets the Big Easy Treatment

TONY COX, host:

Absurd hope is a major theme in Samuel Beckett's famous play "Waiting for Godot." Last weekend, Godot got the Big Easy treatment when it was performed outdoor in New Orleans' lower Ninth Ward.

(Soundbite of marching band playing)

COX: The performance was free to the public. And in classic New Orleans' fashion, theatergoers were treated to bowls of gumbo before the curtain rose. Then a marching band led the crowd two blocks away to a vacant lot where the play was staged.

(Soundbite of play "Waiting for Godot")

Unidentified Man #1: Help.

Unidentified Man #2: Oh, my God. Help me. We were beginning to weaken. In an hour, sure to see the evening out.

Unidentified Man #1: Help. Do you hear him?

Unidentified Man #2: Oh, believe me. We have struggled unassisted. Oh, we are no longer alone waiting for the night, waiting for Godot, waiting for waiting.

Unidentified Man #1: All evening, we struggled unassisted, and now it's all ready…

COX: "Waiting for Godot" in no less stars J. Kyle Manzay of "American Gangster" and Wendell Pierce of HBO's "The Wire." Wendell Pierce joins us right now.

Wendell, thanks for coming on.

Mr. WENDELL PIERCE (Actor, "Waiting for Godot;" "The Wire", HBO Channel): Thank you, Tony.

COX: Hey, listen since the 1950's "Waiting for Godot" has been performed all over the world including in prisons and in war zones - all kinds of places. Why does this particular work speak so well to the issues that New Orleans is dealing with right now?

Mr. PIERCE: Well, This play deals with the abandonment of humanity and struggling with despair, a tug of war between despair and hope. And the whole idea of waiting for an entity to come in and either save you or assist you or do you decide to do something for yourself and understand that there is this abstract idea of hope that you must hang to and try to achieve some semblance of existence and validity to your journey on the - in life.

COX: Well, what about…

Mr. PIERCE: And so right…

COX: Go ahead. I'm sorry.

Mr. PIERCE: So right now in New Orleans, I mean, you know, this for two years been this great sense of abandonment and struggle and a sense of survival and hanging on to hope. And I just think that with all those themes in a play, it just speaks to what people are going through right here and the whole idea of waiting is paramount here in New Orleans.

We have been waiting for recovery and waiting for the government to actually live up to his promises and also waiting for a something to inspire and then also dig in deep down with ourselves. The play also says let us do something while we have the chance.

COX: Let's talk for moment about the staging and the time that we have time left. And we don't have as much time as I wished we did because it's a very interesting story, and I'm a big fan of yours on top of all that.

Mr. PIERCE: Oh, thank you.

COX: But the staging challenges, Wendell - the weather, onlookers, airplanes, traffic - talk about how those things impacted your ability to put this on, literally, in the streets.

Mr. PIERCE: Well, you see that's the thing. I think one of the stars of the play was actually the setting. I mean in the lower Ninth Ward, it's not just one vacant lot, we're talking about an entire neighborhood gone - vanished. And a part of it was this cathartic feeling that the audience had while watching us in this void of the play realizing that they were in a void that was created by one of the greatest disasters of our time.

And the fact is we were on hallowed ground where you could hear the voices and the cries of all those who lost their lives right there in that very spot. So it was profoundly moving experience not only if you're the actors and the audience also - but just very spiritual also.

COX: Here's my final question. You're moving - you're doing the play again this weekend but you're moving locations. Where are you moving to and why are you moving given what you just described?

Mr. PIERCE: Well, we wanted to make sure that all the city was involved and not just one neighborhood. A lot of people don't understand that 80 percent of the city was destroyed. It wasn't just one neighborhood. One of the actors in play said he thought he was - he knew everything about the disaster, and when he came down, he didn't realize how vast it was.

So we didn't want to just to keep it in one place. We wanted to take it out to all the neighborhoods. Take it out to places where people have also suffered. And we're in Gentilly ward now, which is a, sort of, like a different vast void because you have - it's like Chernobyl, out of every 10 houses maybe one person is back in. And there's these shells of homes which kind of reflect this metaphor - the shell that New Orleans' right now. You know trying to regain that life in heart of the city.

COX: You've never done anything like this before, have you?

Mr. PIERCE: No, this is the reason someone becomes an artist. You know what thoughts are to individual. Art is a form where community comes together and reflects on his past, his hopes for his futures.

And the greatest thing about this performance is the fact that with all of the fighting and struggle that we're going through as a city, it was a time - it was the best of time for New Orleans to come together. It was a unique time where people of different walks of life, desperate parts of the city, had came together as one to, kind of, feel this cathartic experience of what we've gone through and the hope of where we should be.

COX: Wendell thank you so much. And as they say in the theater, break a leg.

Mr. PIERCE: Thank you very much. If you get a chance, come down this weekend.

COX: Will do. That's Wendell Pierce of HBO's "The Wire." This weekend he'll be performing Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.