Playbill on Opening Night: Who Inspired the New Orleanian Outcasts of Airline Highway?

News   Playbill on Opening Night: Who Inspired the New Orleanian Outcasts of Airline Highway?
Airline Highway, the new play by Lisa D'Amour that depicts a slice of life from the outskirts of New Orleans, opened April 23. was there.


Real-life legend Chris Owens houses her burlesque nightclub at 500 Bourbon Street in New Orleans, LA, so it was only fitting that the cast of Airline Highway would gather at Bourbon Street Bar & Grille — the New York City hotspot on Restaurant Row, inspired by Southern Louisiana — before their opening night performance on Broadway.

The character of Miss Ruby (played by Judith Roberts) in Airline is based on Owens, and the rag-tag troupe of characters that populate the show are gathering at the Hummingbird Motel (the setting of the story, and the home of Miss Ruby) for her "living funeral."

They're all outcasts of sorts. Scott Jaeck plays Wayne, who owns the joint, with K. Todd Freeman as Sissy Na Na (the fabulous drag queen who thinks she owns the joint), Caroline Neff as Krista (a down-on-her-luck stripper), Ken Marks as Francis (who makes occasional appearances by bicycle), Tim Edward Rhoze as Terry (a not-so-handy handyman) and Julie White as Tanya (a drug-addicted hooker, although they don't like to use the "H Word" at the Hummingbird).

Bait Boy (played by Joe Tippett), a character who made his escape from the seedy subculture of the motel, returns for the party and brings along Zoe (played by Carolyn Braver), an innocent teen who has a paper to write about the interesting "family" of folks. "I am excited about opening the sucker!" Braver said at Bourbon, prior to the show's official bow. "I'm excited to just be open, and now we get to play with each other.

"I play a high school student. She's really smart. She kind of thinks quicker than her brain can filter — like me, too, I'm realizing. I have a niece who is 16, who is really, really smart, [although] she's much more socially adept than my character. I also had this stage manager from the show that I did beforehand, and she had a lot of the quirks that my character has, and I tried to get in her brain when I was auditioning for this character and pull from her."

When Braver's character rips off the Band-Aid by asking questions about each of their lives, the wounds begin to open, and all of their inner demons are unleashed.

Neff, who plays Krista, the stripper, explained, "One of the most beautiful things about her is that she is fiercely loyal, incredibly devoted and is more than willing to fight her way through any situation. She's been spurned by her lover, and I think of anybody who has felt that and the way [one could] respond to that. [Krista's ways of responding] are not always the most healthy, but [it's] always the hardest fight, and I think that that's one of the most special things about her."

The cast
The cast Photo by Monica Simoes

Tanya is struggling, too — with her self-worth, with her profession as a prostitute and with the tormenting thoughts of what her life could have been if she never gave her children up for adoption. Oh, and there's also the intense drug addiction.

"I find it on the page and in the world of it," White explained of her process and her inspiration. "But, [Tanya] reminds me a lot of Giulietta Masina in 'Nights of Cabiria.' In 'Nights of Cabiria,' they basically live in holes in the ground. They are so poor, and she is a prostitute — it's a Fellini thing — but she has so much zest, even though things are hard, so [I'm] trying to bring that to the character, so that you're not just bringing a sad character in a sad way. I played Nurse Jackie's sponsor for a season last season [on Showtime's 'Nurse Jackie'], so I read a lot about Oxy addiction, and it has come in handy with this character. She is trying hard to not use on this day, while she's throwing this living funeral for Judith [Robert]'s character, who I think she kind of considers like a mother figure. It's a family. It's a play about a family. They're not a family by blood, but they have formed this crazy family."

New Orleans native D'Amour, who makes her Broadway playwriting debut with Airline Highway, didn't have to look too far to create the characters' stories. Where did she look for inspiration, and where did she write? "Two places," she said. "One is in front of my living room window — I have a little desk, and it looks down the street to where my mom and dad live, so I'm always looking towards my ancestors, my elders. I also wrote some of it at a family home [in Covington, LA], and it's a co-owned house by many aunts and uncles of my mom, and it's on the north shore of New Orleans, and it's a really amazing retreat and place to write. And, my great, great grandfather was the first person who purchased it."

Before heading to her show — and celebrating at the Hard Rock Café afterwards —she added, "I'm proud to be a woman on Broadway who is bringing these characters that are rarely seen on a Broadway stage into focus. Also, it's a play that has an ensemble that is moving forward through this play, so everyone has a voice, and I think as a woman playwright that's an important message to carry."

( staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)

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