Despite the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, the Alley Theatre miraculously managed to open Rajiv Joseph’s timely new play on time.
On Monday, Aug. 28, the last thing playwright Rajiv Joseph imagined he’d be doing was volunteering at the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston, then a Hurricane Harvey shelter. While rains continued to flood the city, Joseph was busy writing P.A. announcements for the shelter: what time showers were arriving, when meals would be served, when lights on and off were, where there were warm dry clothes, etc.
For Joseph, the process wasn’t unlike rehearsing a new play. After getting feedback from his stage manager, Lori Lundquist, Joseph realized that he sounded like a “vice principal reading morning P.A. announcements.” But the playwright powered through his new job. “Writing is probably the only marketable skill I own in the world, and I was actually able to use in the middle of this disaster,” admits Joseph. “Once this is read out loud for 5,000 people, it will be the biggest audience I’ve ever had.”
Of course Joseph, the author of such plays as Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo and Guards at the Taj, wasn’t in town to do flood rescue work. On the other side of downtown Houston, the Alley Theatre was set to premiere his new play, Describe the Night, but the theatre was taking on floodwaters at an alarming rate. The Neuhaus Theatre—the company’s 310-seat theatre, where the show was supposed to begin performances on Sept. 15—was completely underwater. While Joseph was personally safe amid the chaos, one thing was clear: Describe the Night was in danger.
But the Alley was committed to the show going on, somehow. The theatre cancelled its annual production of The Santaland Diaries and moved the planned world premiere of Lawrence Wright’s Cleo to April 2018, plans to open Describe the Night continued along an alternate path while the theatre building recovered.
Commissioned and developed by the Alley, Describe the Night is an epic saga spanning 90 years of Russian history, interweaving the stories of seven people over three separate time periods and locations, from the tale of a Russian writer traveling with the Red Cavalry in 1920, to KGB machinations around the fall of the Berlin Wall, to the 2010 crash of a plane carrying most of the Polish government in Smolensk, Russia. In many ways, Joseph’s play is about persistence and the human bonds that we form when faced with adversity. So is the story of how Describe the Night miraculously opened on time.