A fourteen-year-old far too smart, self-assured, and resourceful for her own good takes to the streets of New Orleans three years after Hurricane Katrina lay waste to the city’s Lower Ninth Ward in Jeremy J. Kamps’ Runaway Home, a Fountain Theatre World Premiere that proves every bit as compelling a slice-of-post-Katrina-life as it is a bona fide crowd-pleaser.

“I have stolen, I have cussed, I have missed the bus,” are just the first of a multitude of sins African-American teen Kali (Camille Spirlin) recounts in the one-girl poetry slam that starts things off with abundant theatrical pizzazz.

Add truancy, catfighting, and premarital pregnancy to the above transgressions, and it’s no wonder Kali’s latest no-no—a knock-down-drag-out with her single mom Eunice (Maya Lynne Robinson)—has turned the teen hurricane into teen runaway.

In a series of vignettes both realistic and über-theatrical, Runaway Home has Kali first finagling her way into a job with the undocumented Mexican shop owner (Armando Rey as Armando) she’s only just tried to shoplift, then learning from white relief volunteer slash anarchist Lone Wolf (Brian Tichnell) that it’s not stealing when you “liberate material objects” from “Walmart or your teacher.”

Meanwhile back on the home front, Eunice searches in vain for a daughter who clearly does not want to be found, Mama’s best friend Shana (Karen Malina White) sets about organizing a rally to protest the bulldozing of still-occupied homes deemed uninhabitable, white-haired septuagenarian Mr. Dee (Jeris Poindexter) sorts through the debris of the now demolished house once shared with a wife who waited till he finally got himself “straight and narrow, clean, and Jesus-loving” to split, and cocky ne’er-do-well Tat (Leith Burke) shows up at his ex Eunice’s door in hopes of a fresh start.

Inspired by its Brooklyn-based playwright’s own volunteer work “mucking all the moldy stuff or damaged shit” Katrina left behind, then “gutting it all down to where you’ve got nothing left but a shell of a house and you can start rebuilding the sucker,” it’s no wonder words like these (spoken by Lone Wolf) and the characters Kali meets over her six-week-long coming-of-age journey ring true.

Directed by Shirley Jo Finney with the same finesse, attention to nuance, and visual flair she displayed in the Fountain’s In The Red And Brown Water and The Brothers Size, Runaway Home combines gritty drama, laugh-at-life humor, and moments of magical realism with the same commitment to social justice and glimpses into lives too easily ignored that made 2015’s My Mañana Comes such a winner.

Leading lady Spirlin makes as sensational a Fountain stage debut as I’ve seen. Spunky and fierce and wounded and proud and vulnerable and teen-rebellious (but not yet unworthy of a second chance), the young film/TV vet’s Kali is all this and more, and surrounded by castmates who give her every bit as good as they get.

Robinson’s stunning, still defiant Eunice, devastated by her own very personal Katrina loss; White’s fabulously fiery, feisty, funny Shana; Poindexter’s grizzled charmer of a Mr. Dee; Rey’s deeply caring Armando, determined despite considerable slings and arrows to bring his two daughters to a better life en el norte; Burke’s edgy, seductive charmer of a Tat, and Tichnell’s scruffy, sexy, all too full-of-himself Lone Wolf simply could not be better, adding up to as finely-tuned, tightly-meshed ensemble as you’ll see anywhere in town.

Add to this Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s appropriately atmospheric scenic design, one that along with properties designer DeAnne Millais’s accumulated detritus, Naila Aladdin Sanders’ worn-and-weathered costumes, Jennifer Edwards’ evocative lighting, and Peter Bayne’s bluesy original music and striking sound design, brings playwright Kamps’ mix of the real and the surreal to pitch-perfect life, and you’ve got yet another top-of-the line Fountain Theatre production design, with added snaps to Edgar Landa for some authentic-looking fight direction.

Tyler Seiple is dialect coach. Jessaica Shields is production stage manager and Scott Tuomey is technical director.

Runaway Home is produced by Stephen Sachs, Deborah Lawlor, Simon Levy, and James Bennett. Karen Kondazian, Diana Buckhantz, Dick Motika, Jerrie Whitfield, Dorothy and Stanley Wolpert, Don and Suzanne Zachary, Lois Fishman, and Ejike and Victoria Ndefo are executive producers. Rabbi Anne Brener LCSW, Elle Johnson, Rita Rothman, and Barbara and Barry Shaffer are underwriting producers.

With floods and fires and quakes and droughts and other natural disasters continuing to wreak their havoc a dozen years after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans hard, Runaway Home could not arrive at a more propitious time. Thanks to Jeremy J. Kamps and the Fountain, attention is being paid.

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The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
October 16, 2017
Photos: Ed Krieger


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