It’s like waking up every day in a whole ‘nother world. Everything that you’re comfortable with is just gone and there is absolutely nowhere that you can go.
— Desirée Stevenson
“We decided to stay for the hurricane,” remembers 16-year-old Grant Hunter. “We were on the second floor of our apartment and I woke up the next morning and discovered the water was up to the second floor. It was shocking.” As Grant recalls, he and his family stayed in the apartment for another three days, until a boat came by, civilians looking for survivors. The boat took them out to the highway, and from there they made their way on a “truck with no sides or anything, to the Convention Center.” His offscreen questioner asks him what happened at the Convention Center. Grant takes a breath. “I saw my first dead body,” he says.
This early scene in After the Storm — screening at MOMA through 11 October — makes clear that life after Katrina has been hard for Grant. His Ninth Ward neighborhood isn’t nearly rebuilt, his family and friends are scattered, and his school remains underfunded. But Grant, along with 11 other kids, finds a way through, performing in the musical Once on This Island. Organized by music supervisor Randy Redd and producer James Lecesne, the project is conceived as a way to reopen St. Mark’s Community Center, shuttered since the storm. Built in 1908, the center had served some 300 children, with swimming, athletics, and music programs. But even as its resurrection makes a great story, the documentary’s most compelling focus is the kids, their efforts to feel stable and safe again.
This plot is just about as conventional as it sounds. Auditions and rehearsals begin amid the usual concerns, that the production is short on time and talent. It also seems premised on a bit of a gimmick, inviting young people from the community to “tell their story,” to make use of their own trauma and perhaps work toward fuller recovery. Luckily, the performers are both charismatic and complicated, their individual stories more interesting than the predictable trajectory, that despite doubts and distractions, the kids pull together to put on a show.
Among these individual stories is that of 11-year-old Eric Calhoun. Younger than most of the other performers, his infectious enthusiasm and immediate commitment to the project make him seem more able than he probably is. Perhaps the adults are moved by his audition — a poignant rendition of “Wade in the Water,” followed by tears when asked why he chose that song. “I’m a preacher’s son,” he asserts, by way of explaining his poise and his interest in music. Assigned to perform more songs than anyone else in the cast, Eric is soon feeling the pressure of rehearsals and memorization. And so the adults — including very empathetic director/choreographer Gerry McIntyre — decide to bring in another boy who was barely cut during auditions, in hopes that he can bring new energy to the proceedings.
Indeed, DeShawn is energetic, as well as charismatic and complicated, like his fellow performers. He leads the film crew through his current home, where his portion of the bedroom he shares with his grandmother is piled with a precious collection of CDs (“I love music”), and where they all have to carry buckets of hot water from the kitchen to the bathroom. “We had about four and a half to five feet of water in our house,” he says. “We’ve been [back] in town over a year now and we’re still not in our house yet.” Still, he knows “We could be living under a bridge somewhere,” and so he’s grateful too.
These visits to the kids’ homes are not conventionally dramatic, but the seemingly simple images are illuminating. McIntyre alludes to the kids’ contexts, but doesn’t presume to know their depths: “I have no idea what is going on in half of their brains, like, I know there must be a lot of mishegas, all that crazy stuff must be going on, just being kids, let alone being kids and living through Katrina.”
Fifteen-year-old Joel Dyson (whose audition is so wondrous she’s offered the lead on the spot) offers some brief insight in her vlog (“I can’t talk,” she tells a caller, “I’m camera-ing right now”). She introduces her father, a reverend, in the trailer where they’re living temporarily, then walks the film crew through what’s left of their house. “This is my room,” Joel points out, “My bed used to be right here.” A plinky piano sounds over still photos of the house devastated by water damage, banally emphasizing the family’s loss. After the Storm is more effective when the kids speak for themselves, as when Griffin Collins explains how sad he is to be living without his mother, now in Birmingham, where, he says proudly, “She started all over, ground zero,” with only $200 to her name. “She wants to come home,” he says, standing in the “wonderful house that I live with my uncles,” near the Christmas tree they will leave up until Mardi Gras. “I can hear it in her voice every time I talk to her.”
Such moments reveal the complications of survival, the mixed sensations of pride, worry, and hope that shape the kids’ new world. That he and his fellow performers share these feelings is plain. As ahe adults discuss their own efforts to organize their young charges (McIntyre worries that Grant is “brilliant supposedly, but spacey… [Sometimes he seems like he’s] not even in Louisiana”), the teens refocus and help to rescue the film.
When Lecesne pep-talks his actors a week before opening (“You go from having created this thing that you’ve been working on in pieces, and then you have to sort of go through this very narrow opening to bring it into something that’s magical”), they’ve already displayed that “something,” in their awkward and engaging interactions with one another, and in their remarkable trust in the show and the film. Managing multiple performances throughout the project, the cast members are brilliant, definitely.