Sunday, April 21, 2019

The “Big Us”: TYA after Hurricane Harvey

I saw a niche in Houston for innovative “theatre for everyone,” and the result was Brave Little Company. Houston, one of the most diverse cities on the planet, should see its full self reflected in our performers and our artist collaborators. So we not only experiment with the artist/audience relationship, but also any relationship that involves “us and them.” I saw this referred to once as “making our ‘us’ bigger.”

The only good thing that happened in Houston because of Hurricane Harvey was that we got to see exactly how big our “us” could be.

The only good thing that happened in Houston because of Hurricane Harvey was that we got to see exactly how big our “us” could be.

Grandpa’s Garden – Brave Little Company

Early on Thursday I met with Mr. Escalante, a teacher at Mitchell Elementary whose third grade class would be helping Brave Little Company artists develop Grandpa’s Garden, our spring touring show. Late on Thursday I had rehearsal for Cenicienta, the one-person, English/Spanish take on Cinderella that we are to tour this fall. We decided we’d break for the weekend and see what the storm did.

On Thursday, most of us expected it to be just another storm.

Friday brought a seeping, greenish light and high cloud cover. My packed day at the Young Audiences of Houston office, preparing for 1,000 attendees at the Houston Arts Partners Conference in just 3 weeks, got whittled down to about an hour and a half. We just made sure our computers were backed up, unplugged everything, and emptied the fridge.

I drove downtown to Houston Grand Opera’s offices at the Wortham Theatre for the culminating performance of a new Opera to Go piece I would be directing later in the season. It was drizzling and parking was easy to find. The performance had been moved to an earlier time so the composer and librettist could get back to NYC on time, in case the airports shut down.

The thing about hurricanes is that they seem able do anything at the last minute.

In Hurricane Harvey, parts of the city got as much as 50 inches of water, more than the city of Seattle gets in a year.

For the next four days, the city slipped into a Willy Wonka fright tunnel of sounds and impressions. Four days of round-the-clock, no-mercy rain. The regular blast of severe weather warnings. Straining to hear if the latest gusts of wind could signal a tornado coming. Water flooding my street, and receding as fast as it came. Water dripping freely onto my floor from newly discovered leaks. Trying to find a weather forecast not calibrated for maximum hype. Using every towel in the house to mop up, and drying them twice a day. Helplessly checking in with family and friends by text. Walking the restless dog a couple blocks to take stock of the now submerged roadway along the bayou, and calculate whether the water would come up higher. Thousands of toads amplified in the drainpipes, sounding like flocks of sheep. Somehow the storm managed to be both boring and terrifying – a slow motion apocalypse that has not yet ground to a halt.

The bayous swelled and broke their banks. The freeways overflowed, intended to divert floodwaters from homes. But for many neighborhoods, it wasn’t enough.

This was when we started to see how big Houston’s “us” is.

Rescues taking place by pickup, Jeep, monster truck, flat-bottomed boat, Jet Ski, canoe, kayak, air mattress, shopping cart, and inflatable swan.  TV reporters, their own newsrooms flooded and evacuated, personally saved drivers headed for high water. The Cajun Navy, first assembled during Hurricane Katrina and now featuring a crowdsourced dispatch app, rolled into town with the perfect timing of any war movie’s scrappiest battalion.

Needs for rescue, food, funding were telegraphed through social media. Sports stars pleaded for donations. A commercial airline evacuated a plane full of rescued dogs and cats.

Mosques, temples, churches, community centers, convention centers, and furniture stores opened their doors as evacuation centers and staging areas for relief. Some employees at a panaderia, trapped for two days by the rising waters, passed the time baking trays of pan dulce and kolaches to feed the needy.

On Monday, when only high-clearance vehicles could leave our neighborhood, a neighbor started collecting donations for the more than 9,000 evacuees at the George R. Brown Convention Center. A couple showed up in his-and-hers tactical Jeeps to take the donations downtown.

On Tuesday, the line to volunteer to help evacuees at the George R. Brown wrapped around the block, and the real face of Houston in all its diversity and kindness was reflected here. Dudes with face tats and women in headscarves. Little League dads in polo shirts and squads of medical professionals in scrubs and white coats. Retirees and kids. One guy in snake boots and athletic shorts. A coordinator came by to pull people out of the volunteer orientation, urgently looking for speakers of Spanish and Vietnamese. A friend who is an interpreter started an online translation coordinating app, and put out an urgent call for Swahili speakers. A friend who is a drag queen did a Facebook Live fundraiser to help Harvey survivors and then got interviewed on NPR. Houston’s large international refugee population became the go-to experts on surviving what we were going through.

This is how big our “us” is.

Mitchell Elementary suffered extensive flood damage, and students will be diverted to another school after several weeks. The Wortham, home of Houston Grand Opera and many other groups, also flooded badly. If I had stayed in the street parking spot I found there on Friday, my little hatchback would have been completely underwater. Cenicienta rehearsals are still suspended, at first because of the impossibility of driving across town, and then because our props designer could not leave San Antonio due to a Harvey-induced gasoline panic. The Houston Arts Partners conference (originally to be held at the George R. Brown) was postponed, and we started a “Post-Harvey Toolkit” of resources for teachers dealing with the aftermath.  

I got to talk with a colleague from New Orleans by phone, who shared her experience with Katrina. We reflect on how isolating a natural disaster can be, and it helps so much to hear from someone who knows the feeling.  

This is how big our “us” is.

Arts organizations who still had facilities and power started up hurricane camps to help parents who needed to return to work. Arts education, character appearances, and performances were booming in the shelters.

My boyfriend and I loaded up the car with canned goods for the Mitchell Elementary community, which Brave Little Company is now part of. Many residents had lost both cars and homes, and couldn’t get out of the area for groceries. Mitchell’s principal led the charge to help them, and to get her teachers set up to fundraise online for classrooms devastated by the storm.

Like many others, we went door to door with dust masks and tools, offering extra hands to muck out a total stranger’s flooded home, piling the furniture at the curb and tearing out the wall board, cabinets, and carpets. The houses there are big, and all but obscured by the piles of debris heaped in the front yard.

Near sunset, a white SUV drove slowly down the street, back hatch ajar, a cluster of children trotting behind, taking turns shouting, “Would you like a free meal?” and handing out Styrofoam takeout boxes.

There are only two kinds of homes in Houston now, the dry and the ruined.

Harvey was the big one, the storm that will change everything, and two weeks later, it’s not done with us yet. My New Orleans colleague says, “Let go of trying to rebuild what was there before and focus on building something new.”

The shelter populations are slowly dwindling, but they still resemble vast airport terminals for a red-eye flight. The passengers are carrying everything they own, and they don’t know when they’ll be leaving or where they are headed.

I think of that heart-stopping moment when the water rose on my street, see the shelter cots and think, this could be us. There is only “us.”


To get to that new something, we have to hold on to this feeling of the “big us,” as much as we want to let the experience of the storm heal over.

To get to that new something, we have to hold on to this feeling of the “big us,” as much as we want to let the experience of the storm heal over. We will have to hold on, not to the isolation of the storm but the connection to the rest of the world that adversity can bring, in Florida, California, Montana, Mexico, Bangladesh, Nigeria. And we will have to do that when it seems that a big part of the country might be stuck in a world before the flood.

Our Houston can do that. The “big us” is right there in the way we write the name of our city now: hoUSton.

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