Welcome to Storyville, 1916.
Here, you can watch a staged reading of an excerpt from my full-length play, “The District.” The play centers on the people who lived and worked in Storyville: the legal red light district that existed in New Orleans from 1897-1917. These are the first three scenes.
I had never heard of Storyville until a few years ago. My jazz-pianist fiancé and I took a trip down to New Orleans and became enchanted with the city’s unique history, architecture, food, and--above all--music. Already an avid lover of jazz and a jazz singer myself, I became obsessed with all things “trad” (short for “traditional”) jazz, which naturally led me to books about Storyville.
It would be an oversimplification to say that the brothels of Storyville birthed jazz music (so named, according to legend, for the jasmine perfume worn by the women working there), but it is true that these parlors played a significant role in giving it an opportunity to develop, allowing such artists as Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton to begin their careers. The undisputed star of the District was pianist and singer Tony Jackson, who also lived openly as a gay man. Though no known recordings of Tony exist today, some of his piano rolls still do. His song “Pretty Baby,” which provided the title for Brooke Shields’ controversial and breakout 1978 film about the sex trafficking of underage girls in Storyville, continues to be sung today, albeit with rather sanitized lyrics; the original bawdy words, written for one of Tony’s lovers, have been lost to history.
My research led me beyond music history to the many fascinating stories of the women who made Storyville their home. I discovered that the district was considered to be the most diverse twenty-block radius in the Jim Crow South, yet the houses themselves remained deeply segregated. In the Blue Book directories published by saloon owner, glorified pimp, elected member of Louisiana’s State Senate, and self-appointed “Mayor of Storyville” Tom Anderson, each house was advertised with a letter denoting the racial identities of the girls working there. “W” is listed for “White,” “C” for “Colored,” “J” for “Jew,” “F” for “French,” and “O” for the most desirable and highly-priced of all: “Octoroon.”
One of the most famous “Octoroon” Madames was Countess Willie Piazza, on whom I based the character of the Duchess. Willie Piazza kept a beautiful mansion “down the line” at 317 Basin Street, sharing a block with other notorious Madames Lulu White and Josie Anderson. The Countess, a self-made entrepreneur and an autodidact who spoke five languages, had a reputation for grace, kindness, and elegance. When she visited the local track, all the society women would flock to see what latest Parisian fashions she and her girls were wearing so they could tell their dressmakers to copy her outfits for themselves.
As reformist attitudes collided with the United States’ entry into World War I, the federal government demanded that Storyville shut its doors in 1917. Of course, as the Duchess says, “You can make [prostitution] illegal, but you can’t make it unpopular.” The closure of Storyville largely led to these same women being relegated to working by hourly rates in “the cribs:” shoddy, unsanitary rooms that provided unsafe working conditions.
The more I learned about this place, the more I pondered deep questions surrounding the moral implications of capitalism, the legalization of prostitution, racist roots within the modern feminist movement, artistic appropriation, and more. And I found myself asking what kinds of families were knitted together in this place that was largely built by and for women but ultimately terminated by men. Using George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession as a jumping off point, I began to explore.
On another occasion and preferably sans masks, I hope we’ll all get a chance to revisit the Duchess’ parlor so you can learn how this story ends. Though, if you’ve got to perform a play in masks, you could do worse than having New Orleans at Mardi Gras as your setting.
I hope you enjoy your brief sojourn into this complex, troubling, dynamic, melodious, and colorful world. As the New Orleanians say during Carnival season: Laissez les bons temps rouler! Let the good times roll!