ArtsEmerson’s Dramaturgy and Outreach Fellow Sara Bookin-Weiner talks to Universes’ dramaturg Morgan Jenness about Ameriville, playing at the Paramount Center Mainstage, March 13-18.
SBW: How did Universes develop Ameriville?
MJ: The project started with Universes in residency in New Orleans interviewing dozens and dozens of people who had been affected by the events around Hurricane Katrina…and then writing short pieces incorporating these thoughts, as well as their own individual observations. At some point Chay Yew came into the process as a director and there started to be a discussion about the core issues which actually caused the post Katrina situation…political, economic, social…sexism, classicism, and the idea of what and who was given value in this country and what was not.
SBW: What was your experience like coming into the process as a dramaturg?
MJ: It was one of the most glorious experiences of my career. First, because I had wanted to work with this ensemble for many years – ever since I saw Steve and Mildred and other original members at the Point in the South Bronx. Second, because of how I was brought in – on an absolute creative leap of faith by then Artistic Director Marc Masterson (of the Actors Theatre of Louisville), who trusted that the basic mass of material could indeed be shaped into a cohesive theater piece – and trusted the artistic abilities of the creative team to do so.
SBW: Through your work and research on the production’s content, which elements did you find the most intriguing?
MJ: One of the key images I found really compelling – and which for me truly shaped the core dramaturgy – was the U.S. Corps of Engineers map of the Mississippi tributary river system which shows how basically this arterial water system all flows into the heart of New Orleans. One of the core ideas of the piece was that, despite various false hierarchies of race and economics in this country we are indeed all connected. The other was that the metaphorical flood waters of Katrina will rise until we are all up to our necks in it – ergo the refrain “How high is the water?” in the piece – and certainly these days I think most of us would admit we are all standing in those waters.