It may be hard to imagine the French Quarter filled with factories, but at the turn of the 20th century it was bustling with food industries and shipping. The French Quarter was called Little Palermo because of the community of Sicilian immigrants who lived there and worked in food companies and on the docks near the French Market.
The corner of Rue des Ursulines and Rue de Chartres was the site of a pasta factory, although it now has the kind of courtyard with manicured shrubbery and brick walkways around a central fountain that draws tourists in buggy and on walking tours. This garden belongs to Beauregard-Keyes House, now known as BK House, which was a boarding house in the late 1890s.
The BK House now serves as the location for the latest immersive drama from Goat in the Road Productions, which opens this week. “The Family Line” is about the Jacona family, as many of its members run a grocery store in the neighborhood. Natalia Jacona is a young woman who runs the store with the help of her mother Teresa Jacona and her uncle Pascal Jacona.
Vincenzo Jacona is a cousin who got into the wholesale food business. As wholesalers squeeze groceries on price, store owners try to organize and push back. Dez and Isaac Richardson, who are black, are siblings who run their own grocery store, which also feels the pinch. Meanwhile, grocery store clerks organize for better wages and hours, and the play is set against the backdrop of the historic General Strike of 1892. Eventually involving 30,000 strikers, it was one of the organizing efforts most successful in uniting black and white workers in a variety of industries.
The drama unfolds in and around the backyard of BK House. There is a convenience store with a lounge area where neighbors gather to chat or play dice. Other spaces include a bedroom, living room, pantry and the courtyard itself. The audience can move between the different spaces and choose the characters and the action to follow. In Goat in the Road’s format, the roughly 40-minute show runs twice, so people can follow different characters and see different sides of the story. With eight characters and five areas, there is plenty of simultaneous action and audience members will understand the story without seizing every moment.
“You learn that people like to see the big scenes and the plots and the character development,” says co-creator and co-director Christopher Kaminstein. “But they also enjoy sitting with characters going about their business and in moments of silence and reflection. You get to be a fly on the wall. Rather than being presented with something, you become the person spying that moment and what a person was doing, even if they were just packing soap and humming to themselves, that’s what we do in our day to day lives.
The BK House will have a New Orleans labor history timeline as well as regular exhibits on the house itself. The property was built in 1826 and was leased to Confederate General PGT Beauregard after the Civil War. In the early 1900s, it belonged to the Giacona family, who ran a wholesale liquor business there until Prohibition. From the 1940s it was the residence of writer Frances Parkinson Keyes, and after his death in 1970 it became the museum it is today.
Goat in the Road’s first immersive story was “The Stranger Disease,” about how a cross-section of New Orleans responded to a deadly, rapidly spreading yellow fever epidemic in 1878. It was put on stage in Madame John’s Legacy of the Louisiana State Museum on Dumaine Street. . In 2019, the company did a show at Gallier House about social unrest in New Orleans that led to the 1874 Battle of Liberty Place race riot.
Goat in the Road Productions’ immersive historical drama is set at Gallier House in the French Quarter.
Each drama falls in the decades after the Civil War, as the city adjusts to social changes. But this is more a story of building towards the future than of responding to the crisis.
After the conflicts in the first two shows, “the cast was like, ‘Can we do a show about where people get together?’ said Kaminstein.
The 1890s were marked by historic milestones in New Orleans. In 1891, following the murder of the chief of police, Italian Americans were lynched in the city, and this event casts a shadow over the action in “The Family Line”. Also during the 1890s, Plessy v. Ferguson was returned. And an era of progressive reforms resulted in the creation of Storyville on the edge of the French Quarter – although it was not in the work.
Goat in the Road had started work on “The Family Line” in 2019, and although the pandemic pushed back its production dates, it made the labor issue more timely, Kaminstein says.
“There’s a slow realization that I think happened the same way during the pandemic,” Kaminstein says. “People were like, ‘Wow, we’re working all the time, we’re not making money and we’re not happy. Can we do something about that? There was a nice modern parallel.
“The Family Line” runs from October 21 through November 21. 20 at the BK house at 1113 Chartres Street. Hours vary. Tickets $40. Find tickets and information about Goatintheroadproductions.org.