Beyond their both being Southern cities, Atlanta and New Orleans often don’t seem to have a lot in common, but theater artist Jeff Becker points out that both cities have been subject to the same sort of rapid change and gentrification in the past decade. The parallel developments make Atlanta an especially fitting first stop for the New Orleans-based artist’s new show, The Sea of Common Catastrophe, running at 7 Stages from February 2 to February 12.
“People relate to the show because it deals with a place that’s underwater, and that symbolism is really clear,” says Becker. “It’s about how change affects longtime residents of a small town, how change affects a place as the new supplants the old. With the change that has come over New Orleans, pockets of the city have remained completely the same and others have completely changed. I think it’s really true of Atlanta, too.”
Becker says his show was influenced by changes in the New Orleans landscape post-Katrina as the city deals more and more with the changes brought by gentrification. ArtSpot, the company where Becker is a collaborator, created the dreamlike movement and theater piece inspired by the poetic imagery in Gabriel García Márquez’s novella Sea of Lost Time in which a town’s residents go on with their daily lives even as their city becomes immersed in the ocean.
The show utilizes a multi-level, transforming set with video projections and video mapping to tell the abstract and poetic story of three people in a small seaside town affected by gradual change.
Becker and his team originally designed the show as a site-specific work at his collective theater space Catapult in New Orleans. His company works in an unusual way, utilizing visual design elements from the very beginning of the process in creating a work, rather than creating a piece and then adding design elements shortly before performance. “I wanted to re-design the piece into a proscenium style show, something 7 Stages could put in their theater,” he says. “Instead of the audience moving through our world or walking through our world in a site-specific piece, the world evolves around them.”
Becker grew up in Maryland, but has lived in New Orleans for nearly two decades. During the Katrina evacuation, he ended up in Charleston, South Carolina, which is where the show is headed after its stop in Atlanta.
“When I returned to New Orleans shortly after the storm, it was incredibly sad and surreal,” he recalls. “It was unbelievable. There were places like the lower Ninth Ward right where the levee broke where houses were pushed off their foundations or houses were bunched up together. There’d be a truck on top of a house. You could really see the violence of what had happened. You realize how much was lost, you realize how fragile a city is, how vulnerable it is to natural disaster. Since then I’ve done a lot of work about our city, about the loss of land and culture.”
Becker also points to recent flooding in Atlanta as evidence of a connection between the two cities. “Environmentally, we need to be aware of forces that are affecting both places,” he says. “Atlanta is not immune from the environmental changes and coastal pressures that Louisiana is affected by.”
Ultimately, in each city the show goes to, Becker says he hopes it will inspire some meditation, conversation and ultimately action about these issues. “Be a voice at the table,” he says. “Find out what’s going on in zoning. Find out what the master plan is in your neighborhood. This show doesn’t speak to some direct narrative about gentrification. It’s more of a visual poem about change. But I’m hoping if people come to the show and really absorb the experience, they’ll think about how change affects them. You are part of what happens in your neighborhood, so make sure your complicity is something you’re comfortable with. It’s my hope that the show really inspires conversation about intelligent change.”