New Production Responds to a “Sea of Common Catastrophe”

Scene from Jeff Becker's Sea of Catastrophe
Scene from Jeff Becker's Sea of Catastrophe
Jeff Becker’s “Sea of Common Catastrophe” debuted in New Orleans and will be at 7 Stages Theatre in Atlanta Feb. 2-12. (Photo: Lauren Hind)

As a work of theater, Sea of Common Catastrophe might disappoint. There’s no clear plot. The characters interact through song and movement, but not through dialogue. The only spoken moments are amplified voiceover for particular memories. All of this, though, is intentional. As Becker explained to me, “I’m not trying to make plays.” He wants “visual poetry”—something between dance, theater, music, and song. Influenced by magical realism, Becker imagines a world that continues despite devastating change—change symbolized by flooding. It’s a whimsical performance that offers a poetic and sometimes absurd reflection on how to handle what we consider catastrophes. Given the changes happening in our political climate, the show is a timely reminder that imagination and collaboration are the best responses.

As the “instigator” (his term), Becker’s creative process starts with one person, one idea. Becker began with the phrase “sea of common catastrophe,” which he had read in a short story by Gabriel García Márquez in 2006. Inspired by the phrase, and working in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Becker created an installation for the Contemporary Arts Center. His training was in the visual arts, having studied ceramics as an undergrad and then installation art and performance in graduate school. Becker took his idea to his collaborators in Artspot Productions, and it morphed in development (through a Creative Capital grant) until it became a kind of sculptural video installation that becomes a space for singing and movement and rumination.

Scene from Jeff Becker's Sea of Catastrophe
Funded by a Creative Capital grant, Sea of Common Catastrophe is a response to Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, and general themes of gentrification and displacement. (Photo: Lauren Hind)

Becker’s work implicitly critiques the practice of conventional theater and borrows instead from performance art. His mission has involved empowering all aspects of the production to contribute to its creation. With Becker’s background in the visual arts, this has meant treating the set as a sculptural character that is just as important as the ones played by human performers. It has also involved challenging the performers. Instead of giving his actors lines to read in this performance, Becker asked them to write songs for their characters. The emphasis on improvisation is characteristic of the movement called “devised theatre.” Becker has even been known to reject the stage completely, working instead with sites like the Louisiana wetlands in Cry You One and the Marigny warehouse of his Catapult Studios for the first iteration of Sea of Common Catastrophe.

The present performance, recently opened in New Orleans and traveling to Atlanta (7 Stages Theatre, Feb. 2-12), transforms the specific references of the post-Katrina landscape to universal themes. The production’s set and video projections establish the idea of navigation, whereas his previous production had required actual movement by the audience through the space of the warehouse. Fishes and houses and even six-pack plastic rings float through water and sea grasses on the video projection before the show begins. A simple line drawing of a guy in a fishing boat comes from sketches that Becker made in his journal, animated by Courtney Egan for the video projection. Skyscrapers rise up in the projection, including specific buildings that locals would recognize (such as the New Orleans World Trade Center). If the water theme is associated with navigation, then so is this skyline—a city that its inhabitants must learn to navigate.

Scene from Jeff Becker's Sea of Catastrophe
Jeff Becker’s Sea of Catastrophe debuted at the Robert E. Nims Theatre, University of New Orleans, Jan. 19-28. (Photo: Lauren Hind)

Like William Kentridge’s animated films, the performance is structured as a series of tableaux. In the first tableau, Clara (played by Mahalia Abéo Tibbs) sings a song about “how to make a sea in 10 easy steps.” I laughed at the suggestion that there are simple solutions for vastly complex problems like land loss and climate change. The phrase conjures up YouTube demos, and yet the subject of this demo is treated with Beckett-style absurdity. Her first answer? Cry. The tears can be collected and turned into a new reservoir of hope. Clara interacts with the set, a wall of cardboard boxes. The box is Becker’s image of displacement, and I definitely identified with the experience of living out of boxes, having moved more times than I care to count. For other viewers in New Orleans, the boxes might evoke recent discussions of relocating people living in flood-prone areas outside the levee systems, as well as memories of Katrina “refugees” living in displacement until they could return home.

Jeff Becker's Sea of Catastrophe
The character Mr. Herbert (center top) symbolizes bumbling white gentrifiers “from off.” (Photo: Lauren Hind)

At one point, a dance party breaks out: a big disco ball spins above the audience, electronic music plays over the sound system (Sean LaRocca, another Creative Capital grant recipient, designed the music and sound for the show), and silhouetted performers dance behind screens on the upper levels of the stage. Jeffrey Gunshol is the comic soul of the piece, performing as Mr. Herbert and serving as choreographer. Dressed nonsensically in a safari hat, cartoonish yellow tie, and spandex bicycle pants, his character represents the forces of gentrification, and his treatment here expresses our tendency to blame the complicated process of gentrification on bumbling white guys “from off” (thank you, Charleston, for the phrase) who don’t realize that they’re destroying the very thing that attracted them to a place.

Scene from Jeff Becker's Sea of Catastrophe
Sea of Catastrophe considers the longtime residents displaced by “progress.” (Photo: Lauren Hind)

Mr. Herbert ends up buying a shop that belongs to Perpetua (played by Kathy Randels), dressed in a head kerchief and long skirt to suggest that she is Herbert’s opposite—the local resident being bought out and pushed out. A neon “open” sign indicates that her space will soon be a new café.

The word “possibilities” floats up in a speech bubble on the video projection, a word that can sound positive, but the scene captures its contrary meaning when used by gentrifiers. As the sound of water suggests a sudden inundation, the set comes apart and the stagehands roll its pieces around to show that this world is now fragmented. The projection establishes an underwater perspective as the characters dance an underwater ballet: coming together, pulling apart, grasping onto boxes that act as life preservers. The sound of waves is calming as the characters figure out how to help each other to shore, which Becker says represents the next stage of their lives. A New Orleans-style brass band ends the show on a hopeful note.

Water can be destructive, but it can also be cleansing and bring a sense of rebirth. It’s no coincidence that one of the best-known New Orleans brass bands is named Rebirth. The message of Becker’s work seems to be that it’s going to be okay. We cannot stop change, so we must find a way to survive it. Treading water, grabbing onto a life preserver, getting help from a friend—it’s all here in metaphors, with Becker’s whimsical style recalling Bauhaus artist Paul Klee. Becker’s performance is never dark—it is not about trying to express the horror of Katrina or its devastation, but about affirming our ability to work together and embrace the paradox of a “common catastrophe.”

“Sea of Common Catastrophe” runs through January 28 at the Robert E. Nims Theatre, University of New Orleans. For tickets, click here. The show will be presented at 7 Stages Theatre in Atlanta, February 2-12. For more information, go here.

Rebecca Lee Reynolds is an assistant professor in the department of fine arts at the University of New Orleans, where she teaches art history.

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