NYC dance troupe uses tales of local hurricane survivors

Hurricane Katrina had struck the city she had fallen in love with just three weeks before her New York dance company was to do an outdoor show at Tulane University. Two years in the making, the event by PearsonWidrig DanceTheater would have included New Orleans residents from different walks of life and spanned the entire campus with performers on balconies and rooftops.

"I was so sad," recalls Pearson, an artistic director. "We were involved with at least 60 people we couldn't get in touch with."

The show that never was became the foundation for "Katrina, Katrina: Love Letters to New Orleans."

The stage documentary of dance, spoken word and video comes to Agnes Scott College on Thursday and includes first-person narratives performed by New Orleans natives who have made Atlanta home.

"It has really touched my heart that there are other people out there who do care; who are involved in this tragedy," says Chandra Stacey, who moved to Atlanta three weeks after Katrina hit. "I felt honored that my struggle was honored and recognized."

Pearson and husband Patrik Widrig met Stacey during a workshop with other displaced hurricane victims. As in other tour cities, Widrig videotapes some residents for footage for the performance, while others recount their stories during the show in spoken word.

Dance sequences are also dramatic. During a 2006 performance at the Kennedy Center dancers performed movements on a black stage to the tune "My Old Flame," made famous by Mae West, while a movie screen backdrop depicted scenes from the streets of New Orleans in black and white.

Thursday's performance will include 10 local dancers.

"The response we've gotten here, it's saying a lot about Atlanta," says Pearson. "Not only how they have opened their arms but listening to them, every moment was just important. Rich and significant. Intense."

After its Atlanta show, the PearsonWidrig DanceTheater will perform in New Orleans. The troupe has also performed the dance tribute in New York City, Austin, Texas, and Meherazad, India.

Local voices from the workshops

"I miss the look and feel of New Orleans. It just has its own distinct smells. I miss the tropical aroma of the foods; the massive oak trees and the fact that I could go to any gas station and they are cooking food. Or go to a drive-through daiquiri shop, pick up a daiquiri and go home."
Chandra Stacey, 37

Her story: When Katrina struck, Stacey and her two children had evacuated with her parents to Barksdale Air Force Base near Shreveport, La. She lost contact with her husband for nine days. When they reconnected, the family found their home had not been damaged although their yard was flooded. Emotionally devastated by the storm and fearing Hurricane Rita, they moved to Atlanta. Stacey recalls property crime and constant sirens where they lived near The King Center. The move has taken its toll on her marriage. She and her husband are going through a divorce.

"My sister and her family, they lost everything — their car and home. In fact they lived in a part of New Orleans that is not even repaired yet. When I go through it still looks like a ghost town. When you're driving from Atlanta it's one of the first areas you hit."
Leslie Daniels, 36, lives in southwest Atlanta and works as an administrative assistant at Hammonds House Museum. Daniels will perform spoken word and a dance sequence during the show.

Her story: Daniels says that a collage of photos of her late mother was among the family mementos lost at her sister's home. The New Orleans native moved to Seattle after high school, then to Atlanta just before Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, to be closer to her hometown. After the storm, some family members evacuated to Houston and Baton Rouge; others are still in New Orleans or missing, she says.

"Without God I don't know how anybody could make it emotionally or mentally. It was a blessing in disguise for my family, but I recognize that it can be disheartening for some people. When people hear the way we speak. ... It's like we are immigrants or something. It's almost like being from New Orleans is a double prejudice when you go for jobs. People assume New Orleans is a place of broke-down, poverty-stricken people. But there were many people who were working at their jobs for 20 years and were uprooted. Initially when people came here there was hospitality, but now that has turned to hostility."
Tammy McGee, 29, lives in Riverdale.

Her story: McGee was seven months pregnant when Katrina struck. She and her husband evacuated to Tylertown, Miss., with their four children. By Labor Day, they were in metro Atlanta with relatives and eventually found their own home. Her son was born a month early at 3 pounds. He's now a healthy 2-year-old, and McGee and her husband also have a 4- month-old son. McGee has worked with Clayton County Schools to help displaced Katrina victims and is currently laid off.

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