In “Shadow/Land,” the opening play of Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s projected ten-play cycle about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, Ruth has come by on August 29, 2005 to pick up her 80-year-old mother Magalee to drive her to the Superdome after the mayor of New Orleans has ordered a mass evacuation. But Magalee dawdles, the levees break, and mother and daughter are stuck in Shadowland, the bar and hotel that has been in the family for 62 years.
On paper, the play can be read as a story of decline, both of a family and of a community, and how their story speaks to the larger erasure of Black history. Ruth has been trying to get her mother to sell Shadowland, which was once the pride of New Orleans, a jazz club that had the distinction of being the first air conditioned hotel for Black people in the whole segregated city. But the place is no longer a draw, the neighborhood is no longer safe, and Megalee is no longer entirely what she once was; she has “middle stage dementia.” Magalee resists: “Come hell or high wawdah i cant sell it Ruth.”
But “Shadow/Land” is not on paper. It’s in your ear – an audio play, a 70-minute podcast, which debuts today on the Public Theater website, and will be available for free for an entire year, until April 13, 2022. What the production is really about is sound – the sounds of violent weather, and breaking glass, and panicked 911 calls; water flooding, dogs growling, helicopters passing by overhead. But it’s mostly a soundscape of language. “Shadow/Land” is really a work of poetry, a New Orleans gumbo thick with “the weight and rhythm” (as the playwright puts it in a note) of the Black vernacular.
At its best, the conversation between Ruth and Magalee sounds like the unmediated language of real people from a specific place, yet achieving a theatrical lyricism.
Ruth: “we have to sell shadowland/ we can talk about it more in the car/ but mr. anderson expectin dat property sale agreement soon as the storm pass.”
Magalee: “i aint studyin you/mr. anderson/ no paper/ or no storm/ i was two when they blew up the caernarvon levee with dat damn dynamite boomin like a st. augustine bass drum/
& im still here/ i was 40 when betsy came through blowin her trumpet/ & im still here/ & ima be here afta katrina hardens into a gnarled cackle/ ev’ry storm just a jealous band memba vyin for the spotlight/ tryna top the last solo.”
The distinct pleasure of such dialogue is enhanced by the masterful delivery by Lizan Mitchell as Magalee and Michelle Wilson as Ruth.
But the play’s gumbo of language also features stronger and stranger spices. The third character in the play is a griot, who narrates, although narration implies a straightforwardness that is not an obvious priority in the verses that she recites. Among the most accessible:
“bewitching hour. stars bedazzle a sprained black sky
as the City untangles its raw limbs, softened
by lashing wind. this is what katrina does:
knifes your life with her macheted tongue,
leaves a salt-rimmed wound
& asks you what it means. “
As the griot, Sunni Patterson’s recitation is greatly pleasing to the ear (it reminds me of Maya Angelou’s sexy, languid cadences) but somewhat more challenging to the cerebral cortex.
What’s most striking about these linguistic curlicues is their sharp contrast with another play by Dickerson-Despenza, far more plainspoken, that’s also part of her Katrina cycle, “[hieroglyph],” which I saw in a recent production from the San Francisco Playhouse. It’s not the only contrast. Characters mentioned but unseen in “Shadow/Land,” Ruth’s husband and daughter, take center stage in “[hieroglph]” — both of whom are interested in art. So the visual, which is absent in “Shadow/Land,” is emphasized in “[heiroglyph[”
I’ll be curious to see where Dickerson-Despenza goes next – which one was the outlier, or whether there will be a different approach to each play in the cycle. (Wouldn’t it be great if future plays emphasized each of the other five senses?) The playwright, still in her twenties, just won the 2021 Susan Smith Blackburn prize for a play not in the series, “cullud wattah,” about a family of Black women struggling to survive during the Flint, Michigan water crisis. This is a playwright we will continue to hear from.
Meanwhile, I recommend that you also read her – that you take up the Public Theater’s offer of an Open Caption video to accompany the audio of “Shadow/Land.”
“Shadow/Land” is accompanied by a three-part discussion series titled The Clearing: “A Useable Past” focuses on how SHADOW/LANDi incorporates the history of New Orleans; “Imagining and Building New Structures” explores why some areas and communities are hit harder when disaster strikes; and “Healing” considers the essential place of art in recovering from catastrophe
written by Erika Dickerson-Despenza
Directed by Candis C. Jones
Cast: Te’Era Coleman(9-1-1 Caller), Lizan Mitchell(Magalee), Lance E. Nichols(9-1-1 Dispatcher and Caller), Lori Elizabeth Parquet(9-1-1 Dispatcher and Caller), Sunni Patterson(Griot), and Michelle Wilson(Ruth)
original music composed by Delfeayo Marsalis, sound design by Palmer Hefferan, audio coordination and recording engineering by Will Pickens, lead audio engineering by Black Rose Sound(Izumi Rosas and Chris Morocco), and audio engineering by Twi McCallum.
Dramaturgical consultant Lauren A. Whitehead; creative content producer Soyica Diggs Colbert; dialect coach Dawn-Elin Fraser. production stage manager Kamra A. Jacobs