New Orleans hip-hop's an integral component in The NOLA Project's new play, "Catch the Wall."
"It's important for us to tell original stories," says A.J. Allegra, creative director of The NOLA Project. The theater company has made its biggest splashes with performances of Shakespeare plays on the grounds of The New Orleans Museum of Art. Their acclaimed version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" was noteworthy for its creative use of the Bestoff Scupture Garden, but tonight it opens a new play that is innovative in another way. Catch the Wall brings bounce music into the theater, and it premieres tonight Dillard University's Cook Theatre.
Catch the Wall is the product of playwright Gabrielle Reisman's experiences teaching in a charter school in the Ninth Ward. She saw the tension between the local culture and the charter school culture, and she wanted to dramatize the way kids are put in the middle of a very difficult dynamic at a young age.
"We wanted a New Orleans story that wasn't about Katrina or its aftereffects," Allegra says. "Though it's unavoidable at some level."
Reisman saw the awkward, pressurized position that students were put in as the school took a very disciplined approach to communicate the dreams students should have, whether they had them or not, and through interaction with the students she learned about their music - particularly bounce. The death of a bounce DJ starts the story, and specific bounce songs are written into Reisman's script. "We wanted popular stuff that has an automatic association," Allegra says, and the music often intrudes into the classroom setting. "You have this culture that is trying to break free from the strict setting of charter school reform. It's the battle of breaking out and starting to shake something, then being told to sit in your chair and get ready to go to college."
Casting the play was harder than Allegra expected. Catch the Wall is The NOLA Project's first predominantly African-American play, and Allegra couldn't simply put out the word that he was holding auditions and get much response. "To this day, there's a very strong divide between Black and White acting communities," Allegra says. He had to actively seek out actors, and had the good fortune of finding two good school-aged actors from Lusher and one who is just out of college but looks young enough to play a high school student credibly.
Allegra has high hopes for Catch the Wall, but The NOLA Project's best-attended plays are the Shakespeare plays at NOMA. This year, that series will return with "Much Ado About Nothing."
"It has the prestige of being at NOMA," Allegra says. "In New Orleans to sell a show, it needs to be an event. For us, the NOMA shows are that."
Catch the Wall runs from March 14-24 at Dillard University's Cook Theatre. Tickets are on sale now.