How do you rebuild after a tragedy changes everything? This question is one of many posed in Runaway Home, a play by Jeremy J. Kamps currently in its world premiere at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles. Set in the Lower 9th Ward neighborhood of New Orleans three years after Hurricane Katrina, this beautifully written, powerful play explores different perspectives in the wake of devastation and the cataclysmic effects when those journeys result in a collision course.
The majority of the action centers around Kali (Camille Spirlin), a bright 14-year-old who has just returned to the Lower 9th with her mother, Eunice (Maya Lynne Robinson). They have been living in Baton Rouge since the storm, which claimed the life of Eunice’s mother and Kali’s grandmother, Beatrice. Kali, who is now pregnant, and Eunice do not see eye to eye—Beatrice was always the one who was far more motherly. Eunice discovers the truth about Kali’s pregnancy and the secrets she has been keeping from reading her diary, and after a brutal fight Kali runs away. She doesn’t make it far, talking her way into a job at a local bodega run by Mexican immigrant Armando (Armando Rey), who is trying to keep a low profile and save money to bring his two young daughters, whom he has not seen in three years, across the border to join him. Kali has an extensive vocabulary and a spelling bee trophy to prove it, and the words she writes in her diary, which she delivers to the audience in monologue form throughout, flow with the rhyming lyricism of a poet.
The Lower 9th is still in ruins from the storm—while Eunice and Kali were lucky to have enough of a home to return to, the government is bulldozing houses in the neighborhood with increasing frequency, leaving what is deemed salvageable of people’s belongings in unceremonious piles on the street. Eunice’s neighbor, Shana (Karen Malina White) has remained in New Orleans all three years, staunchly guarding her home and the homes of her neighbors while attempting to galvanize the community into action against the ways the government recovery effort has mistreated them. There’s also self-proclaimed anarchist Lone Wolf (Brian Tichnell), who came down from Michigan at the start of the recovery effort and has a much more radical, less productive approach to fighting the system. The community is rounded out by Mr. Dee (Jeris Poindexter), an elderly man whose trailer is next on the demolition list, and Tat (Leith Burke), Eunice’s boyfriend who left in the height of the storm with a promise of coming back to save her and never did.
Kamps wrote the play based on his own experiences as a volunteer in New Orleans two years post-Katrina, and given the recent devastation from Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, it feels heartbreakingly topical (the Fountain is donating a portion of proceeds to the Houston Food Bank in acknowledgement). Every aspect of the production contributes to a comprehensive, authentic depiction of a vivid community. The set (Stephanie Kerley Schwartz) is detailed and specific, and beautifully used by director Shirley Jo Finney, who utilizes every inch of the space and makes powerful choices in an impressive example of smart direction elevating already strong material. The transitions between scenes are seamless, and the more artistic aspects of the text, such as Kali’s rhyming diary entries and a sequence in which she narrates a text message conversation, never feel jarring or out of place. The hour and 45 minutes seems to go by in the blink of an eye, with nary a foot put wrong.
The cast is strong, led by Spirlin, who started out stilted in her opening monologue but seemed to gain confidence as the piece wore on. She is at her best in scenes where she has another actor to play off of and banter with, showcasing Kali’s quick wit and impulsive nature. The play’s most moving sequence comes midway through, as Kali and Eunice describe in separate but complementary monologues the pivotal events that defined their lives up until this point—for Kali, her first sexual experience, for Eunice, the day the levees broke and the horrifying details of her mother’s death. In a sign of crafty writing, the pieces are sneakily laid early on for the unexpected way in which certain characters’ lives will intersect, but the climactic moment still feels shocking when it comes. Overall, Runaway Home combines many strong elements into a snapshot of a specific moment in time that manages to feel universal and relevant.
Runaway Home runs at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood through November 5th. Performances are Mondays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets range from $20 to $40, and Monday evenings are pay-what-you-can. A portion of all sales will be donated to the Houston Food Bank and the Hurricane Harvey relief efforts. The running time is one hour and 45 minutes, no intermission. To purchase tickets, visit www.FountainTheatre.com.