New Orleans An empty intersection. A tree surrounded by hurricane debris. Ruined houses still untouched since they were flooded by roof-deep water. Now they've been joined by an outdoor stage, with actors and an audience.
The city's darkest corner, the flood-flattened Lower Ninth Ward where few people have rebuilt their homes 26 months after Hurricane Katrina, has been turned into a theater presenting symbolic and poignant free performances of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot."
The performances are capturing the zeitgeist of a city waiting impatiently for Katrina's aftershocks to subside. So many people showed up for Friday's opening night performance, even those who'd never heard of Beckett before, that hundreds were turned away because seating was limited to 500. Some arrived with babies in their arms, others still in their blue work coveralls, others from the wealthiest parts of town.
Like the two tramps looking for Godot in Beckett's 1949 masterpiece, New Orleanians know about waiting.
"We waited for Red Cross. We waited for George Bush. We waited for rescue. We waited for housing. We waited in line for FEMA vouchers," 53-year-old Tyrone Graves said as he swatted mosquitoes in the warm twilight before the start of Friday's performance.
Katrina destroyed his home and drove him to Houston; he returned only recently, but still relies on friends and family to house him while he works with demolition crews.
"Waiting. I can tell you about waiting," he said.
Carmen King, who lost her teaching job after Katrina closed her school, is waiting, too. She's waiting for her best friend, Dorene George, to come back home from Little Rock, Ark., where she's has had to live because New Orleans rents rose so much after the storm.
"We talk every day on the phone," said King, 59, as she stood in line to get into the play. "She can't afford to come back."
Waiting is just about all Delores Antoine has done.
Her home just a few blocks from the outdoor stage was badly flooded and she still hasn't gotten the money she needs from Road Home, the state's hurricane homeowner grant program that's been roundly criticized for being overly bureaucratic.
"Oh, geez," said 53-year-old Antoine. "I'm waiting for Road Home. I'm just waiting for any kind of help to get me back to my house."
She said it's been "about a year of lines. Everywhere I go there is lines. Everywhere you go you have to have a suitcase of papers. 'Oh, bring in this, bring in that.'
"My life is at a standstill. I can't move forward."
So then, "Waiting for Godot" and its stark flirtation with insanity and bouts of existential doubt speaks the language of the people here.
But the play is not purely gloomy. It is a vaudevillian tragicomedy, and this production seeks to point out the awfulness of Katrina while illuminating a place lacking in light.
"It's a form of resistance to a landscape that does not seem to be fertile to develop any sort of art," said Paul Chan, an activist artist who came up with the idea of doing the play in scarred New Orleans.
He said the production, arranged by the Classical Theatre of Harlem, is following in the footsteps of other "Waiting for Godot" stagings set in bruised landscapes. In Beckett's time, for example, it was performed for inmates at the San Quentin prison in California. Susan Sontag staged it in Sarajevo during the Yugoslavian civil war in the 1990s.
The play, with big name actors like Wendell Pierce, an Image Award winner for his supporting role in HBO's "The Wire," is bringing some joy to the Lower Ninth.
"It gives you hope that you have not been forgotten. Even though it seems like we have been forgotten, somebody remembers us," said the Rev. Charles Duplessis, who said he could not recall a bigger crowd since Katrina struck his old neighborhood.
His Lower Ninth Ward church, Mount Nebo Baptist, was destroyed by the storm and, like the characters in "Godot," he's waiting.
"Right now, we're waiting on the funds to rebuild it."