"This city speaks to me," Lisa D'Amour said of New Orleans, the vibrant Southern city where her latest play, Airline Highway, takes place.
"I think it's connected to my Southern-ness," she added, as she described a home shared by her family, located in Covington, LA. "That house speaks to me and is a character in our lives. I think that's part of the way I think about the world, and these locations often become characters in the play."
Locations and settings have played crucial roles in D'Amour's writing, particularly Detroit, her Pulitzer Prize-nominated work that played an acclaimed run at Playwrights Horizons in 2012. And in her new play, D'Amour is returning to the location of her childhood: New Orleans.
Remembering her family house, which was shared by her aunts and uncles, D'Amour emphasized the emotional aspects of location. "Whenever we go over there, there's never a time that Papi is not mentioned, and Papi died in the 50's. But I feel like I know him because he speaks to me through the house. I think that spaces actually talk to me, and that shows up in my plays a lot." In Airline Highway, currently playing a critically acclaimed run at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company through Feb. 14, a group of colorful characters living in a motel on the airline highway of New Orleans gather to celebrate the life of their friend Miss Ruby in a living funeral.
D'Amour's fascination with the crumbling motels of the area dates back to her childhood when, before the interstate was built, it was the only way in and out of the city. But as the gentrification of the city increased, the motels deteriorated and became the locations of seedy and secret rendezvous.
"By the time I was in high school in the 80's, they were basically known as no-tell motels, where all the politicians and religious leaders got caught with prostitutes," she said, laughing. "A lot of them have been torn down now. You see that a lot in mid-size American cities — the street that has the pawn shops and the hardware stores and the occasional diner, and now more and more box stores because that tends to be where development is happening on the edge of town."
The motels also served as homes for people who couldn't rent long-term leases on apartments, and D'Amour found herself wondering about the people who would live there.
"I tried to imagine what are the communities that might develop in one of these places, which are probably populated by people who maybe don't have strong family ties because of whatever bridges they have burned," D'Amour said. "That was the starting point for my imagining the play."
Airline Highway depicts the living funeral of Miss Ruby, a character based on a New Orleans performer named Chris Owens, who is over 80 years old and still gives two shows a week in her club on Bourbon Street and leads the traditional Easter parade through the quarter every year.
Traditions play an important role in the culture of New Orleans, D'Amour said, adding that the city's rich history was easy for her to remember and draw from for her play. She has always loved the idea of asking why we have to wait until people are dead to honor them or celebrate their lives.
"I've been reading about that more and more, not even just in New Orleans, but people who are terminally ill and kind of wanted to celebrate their life before it's over," she said. "There's another trend in New Orleans right now that's pretty popular, which is getting embalmed standing up or in a position sitting up, drinking a cocktail. When people come for visitation, it's like a statue of you, but it actually is you. That's been done a number of times lately by New Orleans luminaries."
While death does not pose a threat to the characters in Airline Highway, gentrification does, and the attendees of Miss Ruby's funeral express their worries about a Costco being built across the street from their home, an example of the rapid development in the city in the years following Hurricane Katrina. "We just went through this huge real estate boom where you couldn't buy a house here. People were coming in from the north to buy houses for cash, and a lot of them are converting them into AirBnb rentals. The change can happen really quickly," D'Amour said. "I think that these people who are living in the Hummingbird Hotel — no one's been paying attention to them, and suddenly I think they're starting to feel surrounded by developments and that there's a lot of nervousness around that."
She elaborated on the gentrification of the city, adding, "I actually think I'm writing about a very particular moment in time in New Orleans that has to do with gentrification, with New Orleans sort of opening its doors to a lot of outsiders, which hasn't happened a lot in the past. I feel it's about New Orleans now and how the locals who have been here for a long time are digging in and saying, 'This is how New Orleans is, and we are going to go caretake this culture. People can come in and move here, but you're not going to change the way that we celebrate. You're not going to change our rituals. We are who we are.'"
Plans had been made for D'Amour to come to Broadway in 2012 after her play Detroit received a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, but the production ultimately was produced Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons.
"Steppenwolf was trying, but it kind of fell apart for a bunch of different reasons," D'Amour said. "It's very hard to explain but it had to do with [the fact that we] lost an actor, and it was hard to recast [him]. Then actors got other offers, and I could have started from scratch on Broadway with a whole new cast, but that just wasn't interesting to me. It played out as it should be."
Commenting on Airline Highway playing Broadway, and bringing some unusual characters to the Great White Way, D'Amour said, "I think that it's an unusual play to debut on Broadway. Broadway isn't necessarily anything that I've aspired to, but I love that I'm bringing the voice of my city to Broadway through these really unique individuals that are in my play. It's great," she said. "I think [the audience is] definitely going to learn about the big heart that beats in New Orleans. There's just so many people here who love this city and love each other. "What I would love for them to think about as they leave the theatre is how you can just never really assume anything about the person on the street that seems a little different from you or of a class that's beneath you or that there's always a story that's going to subvert your expectations," she added. "I think these characters really surprise audiences as you move through the play in terms of how they care for each other or how they try to bring out each other's best selves and how they stand up for their home town and for each other."
(Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)