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Theatre in Review: Travisville (Ensemble Studio Theatre)

Bjorn DuPaty and Denny Dale Bess. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

Many first-time playwrights stick close to home, pulling drama out of their own personal experiences. William Jackson Harper has bigger fish to fry, and he does so, impressively, in this wide-ranging work, which poses a compelling question: When the prospect of social progress looms, how much does one settle for in order to keep the peace?

The action unfolds in an unnamed Southern town in 1964. The Civil Rights Act has passed, the mayor is a liberal (for the time) white man, and the Ministers' Alliance, made up of the local black churches, has plenty of access to City Hall. Then again, when a young black man seats himself at a lunch counter downtown, a brouhaha erupts, leading him into a fistfight followed by a night in jail. Zeke Phillips, the interloper, isn't a local, and Elder Alden Hearst, the sometimes overbearing head of the alliance, wants the incident suppressed at any cost.

But Phillips is in town for a reason that won't go away: A real estate developer has proposed building a shiny new retail district, Travisville, that promises to bring jobs and renewed prosperity to the area. There's just one problem: It requires razing the town's black neighborhood, displacing hundreds of residents. A buyout offer, with additional assistance in finding a new home, is on the table, but the money is roughly half of what most of the houses are worth.

It's a situation that should make one's blood boil, right? As Ora Fletcher, a young minister, notes, "Laws, Federal laws, have been passed, the city's not complying, and still no one's doing anything." But then, why does Phillips get such a cool reception? Hearst replies, defending the status quo: "At least a Negro can sleep at night knowing ain't nobody gonna throw a Molotov cocktail through his window. Ain't nobody gonna shoot his kids and make him watch. Ain't nobody gonna cut his testicles off and hang him from the oak he got in the front yard." It doesn't help that Phillips overplays his hand, distributing leaflets that imply the homeowners are about to be evicted without payment. To his astonishment, he learns that, to most of them -- scarred by memories of firebombs and other atrocities -- even an inadequate payout is a step forward. In any case, they are loath to let a recent Morehouse graduate, sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality, tell them what to do: One of them, speaking for them all, says, "You gonna lead us into battle, you gonna leave town, and if it all goes sideways? We gonna pick up the pieces."

Having put his players in place, Harper skillfully tracks several plot threads: Phillips continues to press his case with the residents of the neighborhood, eventually finding one couple who refuse to play ball with the developers. Elder Hearst, who is gravely ill, tries to control the situation while wrangling Fletcher, his much younger successor, whose instinct is to join the battle. At the same time, Hearst is determined to box in Gunn, another minister pushing for social action, who is, nevertheless, starting to drown in booze, thanks to the guilt he feels for his role in another social protest, which ended disastrously. (He is also secretly connected to Phillips.) And Gillette, the mayor, keeps knocking heads together, trying to force the illusion of racial harmony -- both for selfish reasons of his own and for fear of a conflagration that would destroy the town's reputation as a social haven.

These storylines collide, creating dialogue that crackles with drama. Fletcher, trying to get Phillips to go slow, says, "These are decent white folk. They ain't out in the streets. They ain't burning crosses." Phillips, unimpressed, replies, "Not being in the Klan does not automatically make you 'decent white folk.'" A dispute between Hearst and Gunn, who says they have "a moral imperative" to act, turns furious and ugly, with Hearst dismissing the younger man as "a simple little ginger-colored parrot" before savaging him with accusations of drinking and playing with the lives of others. Later, Hearst, himself fed up with going along to get along, hurls accusations at Gillette. Who accuses him of being unfair. "Don't you dare talk to me about fair," the elder replies. "Ain't nothing been fair for Negroes ever. I have spent my entire civic life building political capital. When do I get to spend it?"

Harper has also provided a series of scalding set pieces that do much to illuminate the contradictions in which the characters are caught. Phillips recalls how his frequently absent father would visit him, taking him out for treats of rock candy; one of these led to an awkward moment with a white woman that ended with the father's humiliation; the boy saw his adored parent's dignity shredded in public -- an event from which their relationship never recovered. When the conflict comes to a head and a family is all but destroyed, Fletcher melts down at a press conference, stripping away the façade of official language and revealing his buried fury. This is followed by a church service where Hearst bares his angry, knotted-up soul to his congregation, abandoning a lifetime's worth of conciliation to reveal the scars caused by years of futile peacemaking.

Under the direction of Steve H. Broadnax III, a large cast does full justice to the harsh truths embedded in Harper's rangy tale. Bjorn DuPaty's Fletcher carefully treads a tightrope, trying to help Hearst keep the peace while facing the terrible injustice being foisted on his parishioners. Sheldon Best captures Phillips' intense idealism as well his naivete and moments of overreach. Brian D. Coats gives Hearst the power of a Biblical patriarch, slapping down those who would question his authority and, later, ruthlessly facing his own terrible flaws. Also fine are Denny Dale Bess, double-cast as the well-meaning but hapless mayor and the smarmy spokesperson for the Travisville development; Lynnette R. Freeman as a householder who pays a too-high price in the conflict; and Nathan James as Gunn, torn between the memory of the life he helped to destroy and his need to make change happen.

The production design is fairly simple, but effective. Milagros Ponce de León's set is a simple interior that stands in for various homes and offices. Adam Honoré's lighting adds such important details as Venetian blind patterns to help define locations. Suzanne Chesney's costumes include nicely tailored conservative black suits for most of the men and period-accurate dresses for the ladies. Shane Rettig's sound design includes an attractive playlist of bebop selections.

Harper, well-known as an actor Off Broadway and in the hit television series The Good Place, here emerges as a fully developed playwright with a knack for powerful confrontations, the ability to dramatize complex questions, and the skill to render carefully shaded characters. There are no easy answers in Travisville, but you're likely to find yourself dwelling on the characters and their dilemmas long after the show is over. This is an impressive debut. -- David Barbour

(16 October 2018)

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