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Theatre in Review: shadow/land (Public Theater)

Lizan Mitchell, Joniece Abbott-Pratt. Photo: Joan Marcus

Erika Dickerson-Despenza is, to my mind, the most interesting new playwright to come out of the Public Theater since Suzan-Lori Parks. An artist of real ambition, she has a kind of double vision, placing intimate stories inside larger historical contexts, further enhancing them with fantastical elements and a touch of spirituality. Cullud Wattah, about a Black family caught up in the Flint, Michigan water crisis was one of the most gripping dramas on offer last season, potently addressing the characters' terrible challenges and the unfolding bureaucratic disaster enmeshing them.

Now shadow/land, first presented as an audio drama during the early days of pandemic lockdown, makes it to the stage. The first in a projected ten-part series about the effects of Hurricane Katrina, it traps its two leading ladies in their family-owned dance hall at the outset of that terrible event. The venue, which has fallen on evil days, is being sold as part of a neighborhood-renewal program. To eighty-year-old Magalee, who is violently opposed to the deal, the hall is a repository of personal and Black history, a vital community resource. (She scornfully calls the sale "the new Louisiana Purchase.") Her daughter, Ruth, sees a decaying building and a heyday of jazz musicians that isn't coming back; why not take the money and build a new life?

The conflict is reminiscent of the battle over the family heirloom in August Wilson's The Piano Lesson: Can a priceless remnant of the past be used to provide future prosperity? Or should some things never be for sale? However, Dickerson-Despenza ups the ante in several ways. The women have stopped by the dance hall en route to meeting Ruth's husband and daughter at the Superdome, where much of the city's population is riding out the storm, but Katrina hits sooner than expected, forcing them to shelter in place. Meanwhile, Magalee, who is struggling with dementia, fades in and out of the past; even so, she catches Ruth in an intimate phone call with a female lover; while this may not be the ideal time to hash out personal identity issues, it certainly fires up plenty of mother -- daughter conflict.

It's a richly dramatic situation, played out against a background of climate disaster and massive governmental failure; as the days go by, food and water run out and Magalee and Ruth wait, with increasing desperation, for rescue to arrive. (A boatload of journalists passes by, taking plenty of photos yet declining to offer help.) The sense of peril is accentuated by Jason Ardizzone-West's set design, which floods the stage with water, forcing the women to seek refuge on the dance hall's bar top; it's a gripping snapshot of a community abandoned in a moment of crisis.

At the same time, Dickerson-Despenza's dialogue really crackles. When Ruth points out that Magalee lost her house keys in her parish church, the latter, evading the issues, piously crosses herself and says, "Safe in the house of God." When Ruth wonders why the young Magalee didn't seize her chances, heading north to perform in nightclubs, Magalee calls up the names of several notable dancers (including Marion Coles, wife of the great Charles "Honi" Coles), before adding, dismissively, "They all went on to be forgotten barmaids at best." And, suddenly turning as fierce as steel, she dismisses the sale of the building, adding with bitter emphasis, "Legacy don't expire!" It's a rallying cry that, in a way, sums up the entire play.

Oddly, however, shadow/land was more successful as an audio play than in Candis C. Jones' full staging in the Public's LuEsther Hall. This is in part because the script is so packed with references -- to the dance hall's storied past, to complex family relationships, and to events from New Orleans' history -- that it can be hard to unpack in a fast-moving theatre production filled with lighting and sound effects. For example, the backstory involving Rosaline, Magalee and Ruth's ancestor, is harder to take in here. Ruth's fraught relationship with an apparently lighter-skinned sister is alluded to without being explored. When Magalee mentions the destruction of the city's levees during Hurricane Betsy, most audience members will require a visit to Wikipedia to bone up on that 1965 event and the political allegations surrounding it. Adding to a sense of muddle, Jones prioritizes high emotions in her cast over clarity of speech -- a not unreasonable approach given the dangers facing the characters, but one that results in a superficial reading of the text.

Nevertheless, Lizan Mitchell has plenty of incantatory power as Magalee, fighting back valiantly against her age and diminishing mental powers. It's a tricky part -- one minute, she is sassily arguing with Ruth or vividly calling up the past; the next, she doesn't recognize her own daughter -- but Mitchell makes her into a proud force of nature. As Ruth, Joniece Abbott-Pratt has an even tougher job, riding herd on her defiant mother and struggling to explain the inchoate feelings that are driving her into another woman's arms, but she is an equally strong presence. I only wish both spoke with more clarity. This is also true of Christine Shepard as the Grand Marshal, a mysterious figure who presides over the action like the leader of a jazz funeral; she, too, has a bit of trouble putting over her intricately poetic passages. Even with its obvious strengths, including a terrifyingly staged climax, this production doesn't provide a key to fully unlock the script's many treasures.

In other respects, shadow/land casts a disturbing spell, thanks to Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew's lighting, which tracks the effects of the hurricane while adding surreal touches. (One cue, catching the Grand Marshal with a battery of beams from stage left, then slowly fading out, is especially haunting.) Palmer Hefferan's sound design mixes New Orleans jazz (especially Delfeayo Marsalis's original music) with such effects as destructive winds, outboard motors, and helicopters, all of which ground the action in a frightening reality. Costume designer Azalea Fairley provides a stunning parade of outfits for the Grand Marshal.

Because shadow/land is the first entry in a larger sequence, Dickerson-Despenza's grand design may very well become clearer in subsequent works, and later productions may prove more incisive. In any case, playwrights with this kind of reach don't come along every day. It's great that a major theatre company is giving her the support her work requires. Let's see what comes next in this New Orleans cycle. --David Barbour

(16 May 2023)

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