Weekly Wire
Gambit Weekly Mr. Big Shot

By Kevin Forest Moreau

AUGUST 11, 1997:  On a recent Wednesday evening in downtown New Orleans, a capacity crowd gathered to hear James McKay Fitzmorris' ideas on topics like race relations, public corruption, family values and other issues close to the hearts of local voters. As Fitzmorris skillfully pushed their buttons, the members of the audience ran through a wide range of reactions, from concern to curiosity, outrage to shock. There was even laughter, although most of that was a bit on the nervous side.

A lot of what they heard is controversial, and some of it downright ugly, but for more than an hour, their attention never wavered; they hung on every word. Finally, when it was all over, they broke into the customary applause.

But Fitzmorris doesn't judge success by that. He knows some, perhaps most of it, is merely polite. To him, the real measure of the evening is on the audience's faces. As he smiled and shook their hands that night, the emotions painted on those faces told Fitzmorris everything he needed to know. Some loved it, some hated it, but they're all talking about it. And that's exactly what he was hoping for.

"It's not about solutions, or about giving the right answers," he said. "It's more about provocation, getting a reaction. Asking the right questions."

It doesn't sound like a typical promise-filled New Orleans political speech -- and it isn't. Surely, some of those in attendance would encourage Fitzmorris to run for office ("Oh, I'm sure he'd be the perfect politician," said an audience member. "He really manipulates an audience."). But the simple fact is that even as they shook his hand and exited, they didn't know who he really is. They spent the last hour and fifteen minutes listening to his voice, among many others, through a speakerphone. The young ideologue has been acting, under a pseudonym, in his own play, The Big Shot of Africa, the tale of a fictitious New Orleans city councilman facing "the most important hour, the most important decision of his life."

Big Shot is one of two Fitzmorris-penned plays, along with The Ecumenical Conversion Scam, currently on the boards at the Contemporary Arts Center. Big Shot centers on Councilman Pat Lyles, who is trying to prepare a conciliatory speech to a group of black ministers because of a racially charged comment he made concerning the accidental shooting death of a 7-year-old boy. During a series of telephone conversations (he is the only character onstage), Lyles endures a crucible of sorts as various council members, politicians, supporters and just-plain citizens try to pull him in several different directions, pressuring him to make political and personal decisions that test his very concept of who and what he is.

But Lyles, as played by Bert Pigg, is not a candidate for sainthood who just happened to make an inappropriate remark. He is a smart, shrewd manipulator who's not above pressure tactics and hollow promises of his own. And as he fights to keep his career and a profitable, shady land deal alive, he also struggles with the realization of the kind of person he is becoming. And that, Fitzmorris said, makes him a symbol not only of local politics but of ourselves as well.

"I've always thought that what goes on in New Orleans goes on everywhere, but this is the only place where it goes on over the table as opposed to beneath it," he said. "And I think that Louisiana trusts its politicians less than anyone else in the country, and we continue to elect people that prove us right. We almost want to elect people we know are scoundrels, because the few times we've elected someone we thought was actually on the up-and-up, we've gotten disasters."

His comments speak to the perverse pride Louisianians take in the state's "colorful" history of corrupt government.

"The politicians in this state, and especially in this town, that are talked about and remembered the most are the ones for which we use the term `grudging admiration,'" he said. "Edwin Edwards would not have been elected four times if the people in the middle -- the average voters -- didn't have a sense of grudging admiration for him. There's a great line in The Godfather that sums it up very nicely: `I'd rather deal with a smart thief than with a stupid honest man.' At least, these are the rationales we give ourselves for the people we vote into office."

Family Matters

The Ecumenical Conversion Scam, the second play currently being staged by Fitzmorris and Raven Productions at the CAC, concerns the McCoveys, a fictitious New Orleans clan that's been active in local politics for a long time. The patriarch, retired Judge Branch McCovey (Ron Gural), misses public life and has cooked up a grand old plan to guarantee his re-entry into the political arena. But he finds his thunder diminished by his youngest son, Billy, who has come home with some startling news of his own. This announcement splits the family in two, and Branch must use all his coalition-building and deal-making skills to work out an agreeable solution.

"Ecumenical turns on issues of family and how that extends into politics," Fitzmorris said. "Most large, extended families are just big political parties. The head of the family has to play all the separate elements against each other, or with each other, to get them united to stand for the thing the family stands for.

"This play is about when a family breaks down and the whole world is watching. Sort of like the 1968 Democratic Convention, with the whole family of the Democratic Party breaking apart in public. The family becomes a microcosm for politics, and politics becomes a microcosm of society."

Nick Faust, who directs both productions, agrees that the scope of the plays goes far beyond the wheelings and dealings of local politics.

"We live in a political world, as the Bob Dylan song said, in the sense that every action we take is a political decision in one way or another," he said. Faust, perhaps best known for his acclaimed debut production of The Foreigner in New York some two decades ago, was drawn to Fitzmorris' work because of its handling of such universal themes in the context of life in the Big Easy. He also was initially impressed with Fitzmorris' voice.

"Here's this young guy, not even 30 yet, and he's already got such a flair for dialogue, for the way people down here speak and act," Faust said. That's an important combination, because Faust sees Big Shot and Ecumenical as being about accountability. The plays are driven by "the sense that we are responsible for the things we say. We need to be aware that the things we do and say make an impression."

More to the point, the plays are about what is said in the absence of others.

"The best way to describe it is to quote [Big Shot actress] Carol Sutton," Fitzmorris said. "When she read the script, she was bothered by some of the language, but she said, `It sure is nice to know what you say about us when we're not around.' That's it. That's these two plays in a nutshell."

The commonality of our personal and political experience are showcased in the backdrop for both works, a mural by MacDonald Eaton that captures the flavor not just of local politics but life in New Orleans. The centerpiece of the mural, a man wearing a jester's cap, aptly symbolizes the sense of laissez-faire that characterizes so much of Louisiana politics.

Oral Traditions

Fitzmorris, 27, is a longtime local boy, a graduate of Jesuit High School and Tulane University. Later this year he'll head to the University of Alabama to begin a three-year fellowship in the graduate playwrighting program, but he still intends to be very involved in Raven Productions, the company he co-founded with Tim Daley and Aimee Hayes.

"Raven's mission is to produce original works by local writers," said Hayes, the company's president. "So far, James is our only featured author, but we want to give developing playwrights a chance to be produced. We're going to have an annual playwrighting competition for local authors. We're going to produce workshops. At the same time, we also want to stage new and fresh productions of the classics."

A recent production of Three Sisters was very well-received, as was an all-female version of Hamlet at Theater Marigny. Hayes plans to direct a production of August Strindberg's The Dream Play for the next summer season, and there are plans for a production of Death of a Salesman, directed by Bert Pigg, as well as one or two other plays by Fitzmorris.

For now, however, the focus is on The Big Shot of Africa and The Ecumenical Conversion Scam. The latter is perhaps the more telling of the two dramas, because it raises obvious questions about Fitzmorris' own family. He is, after all, part of the well-connected Fitzmorris clan: great-nephew of former Lt. Gov. Jimmy Fitzmorris, nephew of Orleans Criminal Court Judge James McKay, cousin to food critic Tom Fitzmorris.

So, is the family's dirty laundry being aired out in these works? Absolutely not, Fitzmorris said.

"Let me say one thing about that: The one thing that makes this writing easy is that my family has a reputation for political integrity and honesty. That makes writing these plays a lot easier for me than if they were known for being really slimy, really conniving politicians."

Being part of a large political family did pique Fitzmorris' interest in storytelling at a young age, and it has provided him with the perfect subject matter to explore the themes he loves.

"One way I benefited from my family was that we were storytellers. We'd sit around the kitchen table and outdo each other with tales of who did what to whom. `Oh, yeah? You think that's something? Well listen to this!' I was exposed to this sort of oral tradition, so I got into telling stories at a pretty young age."

And, as Big Shot and Ecumenical prove, the stories he likes to tell are about decisions.

"Theater is all about making decisions," Fitzmorris said. "I like moral crises, moral redemption. I can't explore moments of crisis among Eskimos, or among fashion designers in Milan; I don't know anything about them. But I do know something about local politics, and I like to use what I know of it to explore richer, deeper, darker characters.

"I like gargantuan struggles, I like veiled threats. A lot of the people I write about are courageous because they wear who they are on their sleeves. It takes real courage to do what's right, and it takes real courage to be really slimy, too, and sometimes the two go hand in hand. And I'm not comparing myself to Shakespeare by any means, but I love his histories. They're so specific. They're about real people in a particular place at a particular time. That's sort of what I'm trying to do. I'm using something familiar to me to explore bigger themes."

Those themes admittedly can be controversial, but that's the whole point.

"I want to entertain and divert, sure, but this is not about going to a night of theater and coming out saying, `Wasn't that fabulous, wasn't the dancing swell?' I want to shake people up. Basically, these plays are holding a mirror up to the city of New Orleans and saying, `Do you like this? Is this how you want things to be? Because only you -- like Smokey the Bear said -- only you can prevent this.'"

And although Fitzmorris delights in rumors that certain local politicos are afraid to come to the shows for fear of seeing themselves, he's adamant that these works are not finger-pointers.

"I'm not laying blame, and I'm not being defeatist. These plays are, hopefully, a wake-up call, a cry for action. It's certainly not a case of saying, `Will the last person to leave New Orleans please turn out the lights?'"

When he comes back to the city of his birth, the city he loves, Fitzmorris wants those lights to be shining brighter than ever.

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