The award-winning playwright Eve Ensler plans to mark the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina by staging performances of her new work Swimming Upstream in New Orleans and New York City. The piece was written by sixteen women from New Orleans who describe surviving the flood and living through the aftermath of the storm, which permanently changed their city and many of their lives. [includes rush transcript]
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AMY GOODMAN: We begin today our coverage of the upcoming fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the devastating storm that made landfall in southeast Louisiana August 29th, 2005. The storm killed over 1,800 people and displaced hundreds of thousands in the Gulf Coast. Many have been unable to return home after five years.
The award-winning playwright Eve Ensler plans to mark the anniversary by staging performances of her new work, Swimming Upstream, in New Orleans and in Harlem. The piece was written by sixteen women from New Orleans who describe surviving the flood and living through the aftermath of the storm, which permanently changed their city and many of their lives.
In a moment Eve Ensler will join us here, but first we’ll turn to excerpts of a recent production of Swimming Upstream. This is being performed by Kerry Washington, Karen-kaia Livers, [Troi Bechet] and Asali Njeri DeVan. It begins with Kerry Washington.
KERRY WASHINGTON: Could tell who we were those first couple of days, wandering around Wal-Mart with a glazed look in our eyes. First day was just to get some minor supplies, like chips or the toothpaste you forgot to pack, just for a couple days. Next, it was wandering through the aisles, all the aisles, realizing that everything — everything — all of it was gone, avoiding the pet aisle, because you might collapse and puke right there in the store for the horror of what your pet is living through, lived through, if alive at all.
KAREN-KAIA LIVERS: Wondering about my neighbors that didn’t get out, who couldn’t make it up to their attics. My neighbors who did, it turned out, ended up dead and mummified by the mud. They were not found for four months, because they were elderly and foreign without close family. The markings on their doors indicated "no bodies." But they were wrong.
TROI BECHET: It’s true. They shoot people in New Orleans. It’s really horrible, when you stop and think about it. Never knowing when it’s going to happen. Will I get shot coming out of my front door to check the mail? Bending over to tie my shoe? Dancing free at a jazz funeral? You just never know when you’ll be shot. People are eager to catch us in the act, the act of being a New Orleanian. It’s like big game shooting or hunting. It’s exotic, exhilarating, the subject of cocktail chatter and one-upmanship. "I shot people on their rooftops after the Katrina levee breaks." "Trump. I shot people at the Superdome. Group went into the kitchen, got food out the freezer. Got them. Another group broke into a snack machine. Got them, too."
New Orleans is a great place to go shooting. It is the murder capital of the country, the place where people are shot to death, the kind of death that systematically and methodically takes away your identity, dignity and spirit, to reduce you to a nameless, faceless statistic — exotic, cultural phenomenon. Black Mardi Gras Indian chief. Black second line dancer. Black children playing in poor New Orleans neighborhoods. The cycle continues. Instead of making unshared wealth off of enslaved individuals, some now make unshared wealth off of the images of the descendants of the enslaved. Will it ever end?
ASALI NJERI DeVAN: Before the storm, I knew where every single item in my house was and got really bothered when something got scratched, broken or went missing. Before the storm, I thought nothing exciting ever happened in Lakeview. It was just a nice place to live. During the storm, something snapped in me, and I felt loosened. Loosened. I just don’t care so much what people think or what expectation they might have of me or even what expectation I might have of myself. I looked at my husband and realized I wasn’t afraid of losing him. Then I looked at my husband and thought, what an incredible man. I realized lost cause relationships don’t need my fueling, my politeness or my friendly visits. And I don’t need makeup in the morning. And things break, and I will not accumulate. After the storm, I am not the same. More bona fide. And so, I’m going for a PhD, because it doesn’t matter anymore if I’m smart enough or have time enough, or I’m sort of old for this, or I have too many responsibilities or children. I’m going. And the only time is now. That’s how I think after the storm.
AMY GOODMAN: Asali Njeri DeVan, [Troi Bechet], Karen-kaia Livers and Kerry Washington, performing the Swimming Upstream: A Testimony, a Prayer, a Hallelujah, an Incantation, directed by Eve Ensler. There they were doing it on the tenth anniversary of V-Day in the Superdome in New Orleans. It will now be performed on September 10th at the Mahalia Jackson Theater in New Orleans and on September 13th at the Apollo Theater in New York. We’re going to go to break. When we come back, we’re also going to hear Anna Deavere Smith perform, and we’ll be joined by Eve Ensler for the hour. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Anna Deavere Smith. The famous actress also performed in Swimming Upstream.
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: You don’t think of your neighbors as people you miss. They’re just there. But not now, baby! Things 'round here ain't nothing like they was before. You know, before, all our people from around here was together. Lot of children. That’s who’s mostly gone. The children and the old folks, like my age. I know I don’t look old. How old I look?
TROI BECHET: Twenty-five.
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: No, indeed, child, I just made eighty-one! Look good, I know. But child, most the folks my age, they gone from around here now. A lot of them died. Whole lot. Lot of them all over the place, in nursing homes, on strangers’ sofas, in their kinfolks’ basements. But you know, baby, like I say, we old. So it ain’t that big a deal for us. Suffering is a quiet matter, part of life, nothing to get worked up about.
I ain’t even been back to my job yet. Though they do love me over there. Tell me to keep up my good cheer. That’s one thing all them rich ladies in the powder room always ask me: "How come you always so happy? Whenever we come here, you in a good mood." I tell them, "You in New Orleans, child! Ain’t you walk in here from outside? You ain’t seen the blue skies? Feel the warm air? Smell the gardenias? Don’t you have a home or a hotel or someplace to stay? And ain’t you about to enjoy a good meal? Get waited on hand and foot? How come you ain’t happy?" Honestly, sometimes they offend me. They ask me about my joy, like they’re puzzled, like I ain’t got a right to it, or like I must be crazy to be happy, since as far as they can see, I ain’t got nothing! I’m just not in the mood to be around folks who don’t know that breathing is enough.
So, for a while, a couple of more weeks, I’m going to just sit here on my porch, make sure to catch my neighbors when they come by, find out where they at, what going on with them, just listen. You know, child, never really did like to talk too much, me, myself. These stories got enough in them to speak for theyself.
AMY GOODMAN: Oh, yes, Anna Deavere Smith, the remarkable actress who’s on Nurse Jackie now on television. She was performing in Swimming Upstream: A Testimony, a Prayer, a Hallelujah, an Incantation, which is directed by Eve Ensler. The play will be performed on September 10th at the Mahalia Jackson Theater in New Orleans, on September 13th at the Apollo Theater in New York.
Today on Democracy Now!, for the first time since she has been treated for cancer, Eve Ensler is joining us. Oh, she’s done interviews. She’s been heard, just not seen. And we’re thrilled to host her here on Democracy Now! Eve Ensler, the founder of V-Day, the global movement to end violence against girls and women, also a bestselling author, the playwright behind The Vagina Monologues. Her latest book is called I Am an Emotional Creature: The Secret Life of Girls Around the World. She’s spending the hour with us to talk about Hurricane Katrina, her work in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as her fight with cancer. Earlier this year, she was diagnosed with uterine cancer.
Eve Ensler, welcome to Democracy Now!
EVE ENSLER: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: What a way to introduce you.
EVE ENSLER: Oh, thank you. I can’t think of a better place to be for the first time than with you, Amy. So happy to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, to see your work being dramatized by these remarkable actresses, talk about Swimming Upstream.
EVE ENSLER: Well, it’s actually their work. I had the privilege for a year to go down to New Orleans once a month and be in a room with sixteen artists, Mardi Gras dancers, gospel singers, community activists, who came together to basically tell their stories, to have their feelings, to create a community, and to create this glorious piece called Swimming Upstream.
I had originally, right after the flood, gone down to New Orleans to see what I could do, and I thought maybe I’d create a piece. And then I met this extraordinary woman named Carol Bebelle, who’s head of the Ashé Cultural Center, which is kind of the center of culture in New Orleans. And I went and said, "I’d really want to interview people and write a piece." And she looked at me, and she said, "Would you do something else? Would you not write the piece? And would you work with all the women here, so they could write a piece, so their voices could be heard?" And I was like, "Done. Done." What an honor!
And it really was one of the greatest privileges of my life to sit for a year in a room where women, in a really raw, truthful, passionate, accurate way, told their stories and told the stories of the people they loved and met and interviewed of what happened during, before and after the flood. And I think what happened slowly is this amazing community evolved of performers. But more importantly, I think, they put this work and the stories into these extraordinary words and music that have now become this piece called Swimming Upstream.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, this decision to perform this — have this performed in Harlem at the Apollo and at the Mahalia Jackson Theater in New Orleans. What we just saw was on the tenth anniversary of V-Day, when everyone was in the Superdome, this remarkable reclaiming that you all did in the Superdome in New Orleans.
EVE ENSLER: Yes. It was an amazing experience. We, with the community of New Orleans and actually thousands of activists around the world, we took back the Superdome and made it "Superlove." And it was an amazing event. Forty thousand people came. And that particular performance, I think there were between 5,000 and 10,000 people there. But I think one of the reasons we chose to do it on the fifth anniversary is obviously so we never forget, but, for many people, obviously, in the Gulf South, particularly since the BP spill and after the flood, you know, things are rough. They haven’t — you know, people are in great struggle. And as resilient and amazing as the people are in New Orleans, we need not forget that they need support, they need resources, they need attention, and they need love from the rest of the people in this country. And I think putting this on in Harlem and in New Orleans at the Mahalia Jackson Theater is a reminder to all of us that art has the power to keep generating memory, to keep generating legacy, to keep — to keep history alive, so we don’t repeat what was done in that incredibly cruel and horrible way in New Orleans.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Kerry Washington in a performance of Swimming Upstream.
KERRY WASHINGTON: If I had a gun, it would serve as my point of meditation. And I would look at it and re-remember Harriet Tubman’s steely whisper and Nanny’s earsplitting yell, Ida B. Wells’s unrelenting voice and Fannie Lou Hamer’s unwavering glare. I’d remember Nat Turner’s plot and Toni Morrison’s advice. And when I shot my gun, my target would be well planned, my aim precise. I would know exactly who to shoot and when and where to shoot them and how many of their friends needed to be shot, too. And when they were dead, when they were all dead, so would be oppression, globalism, neocolonialism, government, capitalism, enslavement, corporations, greed, hunger, hate, religion, war, poverty, cruelty! No, no, it can’t be too soon for me, the day I get my gun.
AMY GOODMAN: Kerry Washington performing Swimming Upstream. And again, it will be performed in New Orleans and in Harlem on September 10th and September 13th.
Eve, you have spent a long time working on Katrina in different ways, also raising money for groups in New Orleans.
EVE ENSLER: Yes, and I — we’re doing this thing right now. When we did "V to the Tenth," we were able to leave, I think, about a million dollars, as a result of that performance, in the community. And we gave, I think, forty-eight scholarships to what we called Katrina Warriors, individual women who were community activists doing extraordinary work in the community. And we’re now going to do a mailing, where we’ve asked them to update and show what they’ve been doing in the last five years. And I have to say, I’ve been reading the updates this week as they come in, and really it is community activists, and particularly women community activists, who have kept New Orleans alive. I mean, they are the ones who, you know, had their doors open, like Carol Bebelle at Ashé, where people could come for refuge. They are the ones who are keeping education alive. They are the ones who are keeping children in safe places and the buildings continuing. And just reading the updates, you know, here they are with so little resources, but their hearts and their spirits and their desire to keep New Orleans the amazing place that New Orleans has always been. And I think that’s been the most moving part of this journey, is the reminder that it’s people, right, who keep the world spinning and going.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, these clips that we’ve been playing are from the tenth anniversary, I keep saying, of V-Day that you did at the Superdome. Explain what V-Day is.
EVE ENSLER: Well, V-Day is a global movement to end violence against women and girls that grew out of my play The Vagina Monologues, because when I did the play initially, everywhere I went on the planet, women would literally line up after the show. And at first I thought, oh, great, they were going to be telling me about their wonderful orgasms and their great sex lives, and I could add it to the show. And, in fact, 90, 95 percent of the women were lining up to tell me how they had been raped or battered or incested or abused. And I of course knew there was violence against women. I’m a survivor, myself, of rape and battery. But I had no idea the epidemic proportions. I had no idea that one out of three — that’s a UN statistic — one out of three women on the planet will be raped or beaten in their lifetime. You know, and suddenly this door opened for me.
And I began to understand that violence against women is central to everything. You know, if you’re destroying the female population, if you’re destroying your mother and your sister, you know, and your daughter, you’re essentially destroying life itself. So, how do we as human beings continue on, if what is essential about life is being eviscerated and devastated?
And so, with the play, I just got a whole group of activists together, you know, thirteen years ago and said, "What could we do with this play? How could we end violence against women and girls? Not manage it, not keep building more and more shelters to keep allowing it and giving it permission, but how do we end it? And we came up with this idea of V-Day, which was Ending Violence Day, Vagina Day, Valentine’s Day — you know, reclaiming Valentine’s Day as a day of kindness and goodwill to women. And we started with one production in New York of The Vagina Monologues, that all these amazing performers came, from Whoopi Goldberg to Susan Sarandon to Glenn Close. And that night was so catalytic. It just launched this movement that, in thirteen years, we are now in 130 countries. Last year, there were 5,000 events in, I think, 1,500 or 1,600 places. It’s raised close to $80 million, that has all gone into local communities. And what’s amazing, it’s self-empowerment philanthropy. I mean, people put on the play, they raise money, and everything they raise they keep, and it goes to local shelters and hotlines, and it keeps their own communities going.
And on top of that, then, we began to look at places — like Afghanistan was the first place, where people couldn’t perform the show without high risk. And we started to say, "Can we do campaigns to focus on those particular places, where all the activists in the world would then raise money for that particular place?" So we started with Afghanistan, then we moved on, you know, to places like Juárez. This year we’ll be highlighting Haiti. The Congo has been one of our biggest campaigns. But what I’m most moved by is how many — you know, I think V-Day is now at 900 colleges around the world, and how the activists pass it from year to year to each other, and it keeps going and growing.
AMY GOODMAN: Eve, that connection between New Orleans and Congo, where we’re going to go next?
EVE ENSLER: Well, it’s very profound. You know, I think you do things unconsciously, and you’re drawn to places unconsciously, and then you realize that there’s all these amazing interconnections. And when I was in New Orleans, when we were working on "V to the Tenth," we were talking about where we were going to stage this big demonstration. And they said, "Well, you have to come to Congo Square." And I was like, "Congo Square? There’s a place called Congo Square in New Orleans?" And in fact, Congo Square was the place where slaves, on the weekends, reclaimed their original heritage. It was — and the majority of slaves who arrived in New Orleans were from the Congo. So there’s this amazing connection between — and then, of course, now we’re involved in Haiti, and we see the kind of three-way V between Haiti, Congo and New Orleans.
So when we had brought all these — we brought activists to New Orleans last year — Dr. Mukwege from the Panzi Hospital, who we honored at this huge event, and Christine Schuler Deschryver. To be with Dr. Mukwege marching — you know, here he is, one of the great Congolese doctors and leaders, marching from Congo Square to the Superdome — I understood how the world is so profoundly interconnected. And our history is so creating a future that if we don’t really investigate the history, we will continue the kind of oppression and colonialism and raping and destruction that is going on in the Congo, goes on in Haiti and goes on in New Orleans.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Eve Ensler. When we come back from break, she’s going to share with us an essay she wrote called "Congo Cancer," talking about the Democratic Republic of Congo and talking about her own cancer. Eve Ensler, yes, the playwright and creator of The Vagina Monologues and V-Day. Stay with us.