When the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts re-opened in Armstrong Park in January, 2009, it was a real sign that New Orleans was back. No longer needing to focus exclusively on projects like hospitals and roads (and, of course, restaurants), the city had been able to re-open a symbol of its higher aspirations. The New Orleans Opera and the New Orleans Ballet Association could return to a properly-equipped stage of generous dimensions, and Broadway touring companies could once again attempt to give us a glimpse of what we were missing down here in America’s own Third-World parish.
On February 4, 2011, the choreographer Trey McIntyre brought his Boise, Idaho based dance company to the Mahalia Jackson stage to premiere The Sweeter End, a piece commissioned by the New Orleans Ballet Association as a sequel to Ma Maison, a suite of dances in which McIntyre’s company, wearing skull masks, celebrated New Orleans’ obsession with death. At a talk-back session following the performance, McIntyre explained that The Sweeter End was meant to celebrate the city’s obsession with pleasure. The piece opens with members of the company, dressed in contemporary clothing, bursting onto the stage. A short and powerful young woman of color, wearing skintight denim short shorts and a tiny matching vest, turns around. Spray-painted in orange letters on her back and butt are the words “What Now.” We laugh. She picks up a can of spray paint and, as three male dancers turn away from her, she slowly paints a single, huge orange X across their backs, deliberately recalling the mark used by the Hurricane Katrina search-and-rescue teams to identify each house they had visited.
An orange or black X on the side of a house was a horrific fact-of-life for months after the storm. The blank spaces formed by the lines of the X were filled with seemingly-cryptic numbers and words that identified the unit performing the search, the date the search was performed, and the often-shocking results of the search: “One dead in attic,” borrowed for the title of Chris Rose’s collection of savage post-flood newspaper columns, was a famous example. I became as obsessed with them as I was with the “bathtub rings,” the marks left by the floodwater. How high had it gotten? How long did it take for the rescue crews to reach this house? How many died? A few X’s still survive. On my way to work each day, I pass one on an abandoned house; its “DOA” refers to dead pets—four cats and one dog--listed in huge, neat letters on the front of the house.
Immediately after the storm, some returnees made it a point of pride to cover their X as quickly as possible. At my house, the floodwaters had receded enough that, by the time the searchers came, they could paint the X on the sidewalk instead of the front of the house, and my landlady simply waited the six months it took the rain and sun to erase it. Others have kept their X’s, surrounding them with flowers or tokens memorializing victims of the flood. On Ponce de Leon Street near the Fair Grounds race track, two houses feature X’s that have been converted into carefully-painted bright red hearts. I’ve seen t-shirts featuring the X’s, and assumed the wearers were ex-New Orleanians just here for a visit; the locals have given up their defiant post-storm slogans in favor of Saints jerseys.
The orange X painted on Trey McIntyre’s ebullient dancers broke my heart; before the second stroke was complete, I was weeping. This is a not-uncommon event, even five and a half years after the storm: a low helicopter, a reminder of my hasty exit from the city six days after the levees broke, will cause me to burst into tears, as will the sight of a concrete slab where a house once stood. When I had just returned in January, 2006 it was much worse—seeing a child, a rare and precious sight back then, would make me cry. I should look at this as a good sign—at least I feel something; that DOA isn’t for me—but it just makes me feel weak and foolish. I should renew, rebuild, move on.
Trey McIntyre’s The Sweeter End, whose vignettes were accompanied by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, went on to employ more X’s. Some dancers entered carrying black X’s attached to long handles. I read these as second-line umbrellas whose sequins, flowers, and beadwork had been blown or torn off. Then, as the dancers slowly twirled the umbrellas and lowered them so that their empty black ribs faced the audience, harsh lights appeared behind each X. I became paralyzed with grief: these were the helicopter rotors, the ones I had focused on as I was hauled up in a rescue ring by the Coast Guard. I had to turn away so I could continue to breathe.
At the talk back, Trey McIntyre blithely told us how much he loved New Orleans, how much fun he’d always had here, how he had translated a march with the Krewe of St. Anne into one section of The Sweeter End. The X’s, I asked him, how did you know? He looked puzzled, slightly alarmed. The spray-painted one came from pictures his costume designer had seen of the immediate aftermath of Katrina and the levee breaks, he explained. But the black X’s, the ones that evoked no sweetness for me? “I was at Preservation Hall, listening to the band, lying on my back on the floor. Those were the ceiling fans.”
In New Orleans, our joy is once again visible, audible, edible; our sorrow nearly impossible to explain. X marks the spot where the treasure is to be found, where the surgeon will cut, where the eyes of the dead once glittered with life, where a fan makes lazy circles on a summer afternoon. It cancels our losses, it fades in the sun.
Catherine Loomis is an associate professor of English at the University of New Orleans. Her publications include The Death of Queen Elizabeth I: Remembering and Reconstructing the Virgin Queen (New York: Palgrave, 2010), William Shakespeare: A Documentary Volume (Detroit: Gale, 2002), and essays on Queen Elizabeth, performance history, and early modern women writers. She is currently editing a collection of early modern poems and short prose works in which male narrators impersonate women.