Especially that Coco


Five days from opening night, Adam the director fumes silently in the corner. Rehearsal starts and stops repeatedly, as the cast struggles to make each song come alive.

The church practice room nearly overflows with singers/actors, musicians, playwrights and an interested audience of two. Even with a window open to the cool evening air, the space becomes muggy as the players warm up.

Welcome to “Tyvek: The Musical.”


Even after the many hours of hard work gutting houses and scraping mold, a handful of volunteers at Hands on New Orleans has found yet another way to pass the time. Caliope, a sometime writer, and Adam, an actor, wrote a script on a whim, along with Chandra, an AmeriCorps team member. The play? A musical about life as a volunteer down here.

That was only a couple of weeks ago. Since then, this impromptu production conducted auditions, rewrote pop song lyrics, distributed scripts and held hours of rehearsals, night after tiring night.

The show will a few days after I check out. I am allowed to sit in on tonight’s rehearsal, provided I can stay out of the way. The flow is erratic, but no more so than any homegrown production coming together.

Around the camp, random bursts of song punctuate an otherwise routine day, as actors run their lines to no one in particular. The play has even caused minor dissension over the time involved. The director recruited the volunteer coordinator for a bit part, maybe to smooth over the situation.

Anyway, the show will run one night, possibly two. It’s for the volunteers and staff, an in-house affair like the three-on-three basketball tournament and the weekly “no-talent” talent show.


The story focuses on Emma, a young volunteer who faces doubts about her true motivations for helping in post-Katrina New Orleans. Her nightmarish visions include talking cockroaches, an overbearing mom and a wayward boyfriend.

Songs include “Tyvek Is Just Alright with Me,” “NOLA’s a Battlefield,” “Pull Nails,” “Wanted: Gut or Die” and “We Will Gut You.” The musical’s title, by the way, is a reference to the plastic suits that volunteers wear for protection while on the job.

Perhaps most interesting is how the participants see their own work. More than one volunteer tells me later that the rehearsal was atypically off the mark. And few see how precisely the heroine embodies the uncertain future many real-life volunteers attempt to decode for themselves.

What they interpret as an in-joke is actually an internal debate over the nature of selflessness, cleverly disguised as musical satire.


Still, it’s easy for cast members to lose their way, as minutes turn into hours during this wayward rehearsal. Adam works and reworks the instrument cues for each number. One or two actors have missed practice altogether, forcing them to skip several songs in need of a polish.

At one point, an outsider interrupts rehearsal to announce that, the night after Election Day, the Democrats have re-taken both houses of Congress. The cast erupts in shouts and laughter.

Adam, meanwhile, patiently and methodically steers the group back onto script repeatedly. With five days to go, only now are the songs about ready to go. But not once has the cast gone straight through the entire play in its finalized form.


After two-and-a-half hours, it’s time to call it a night. No full run-though tonight. Costumes have yet to be made, programs to be typeset, revisions to be memorized.

So why has this merry band of would-be theater kids embarked on this grueling month-long labor of love? Certainly not fame or money.

Call it a can-do attitude. Sure, it’s fun to get together and put on a show. But at some level, it’s about climbing that mountain before you. Why not scale it, even if you could go around it?

Which is why, night after night, the sounds of stomping feet can be heard on the common room ceiling, as rehearsal drags on. Or why the director, pianist and playwright are drawing a house and oversize cockroaches on flattened cardboard boxes at two in the morning.

“Tyvek: The Musical” isn’t so much about the story of Emma as it is about the volunteers who came to New Orleans this fall season to lend a hand. In this case, the work’s the thing as well.

• • •

New Orleans 2006


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