Ruth and her mother Magalee are stuck in Shadowland, a place that was once their family’s source of pride, a jazz club that had the distinction of being the first air-conditioned hotel for Black people in the whole segregated city of New Orleans. But the club had gone into decline – so had the family, and the community in which it’s located and 80-year-old Magalee herself, (suffering from “middle stage dementia”) — long before August 29, 2005, the day that Hurricane Katrina made landfall. And now on that day, the two women are trapped by the storm.
“shadow/land,” the first of playwright Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s planned ten-play cycle about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, was first produced two years ago (a year into the COVID-19 shutdown) as an audio drama. The podcast told much of its story through the sounds of violent weather, breaking glass, panicked 911 calls; water flooding, dogs growling, helicopters passing by overhead.
Now the same director, Candis C. Jones, has created a new production, on stage at the Public Theater, so radically different – and yet so essentially the same – that the productions feel like a useful lesson in the theatrical arts.
The soundscape is still important, but it’s primarily the soundscape of language, a poetic gumbo thick with what the playwright herself calls “the weight and rhythm” of local allusions and regional Black vernacular — always pleasing to the ear even when the meaning of many of the words is not clear.
On stage at the Public Theater, the poetry is now enhanced by the visuals – indeed, at times made palpable. This is true from the very beginning of the play, when a character named Grand Marshal (Christine Shepard) shimmies their way around the auditorium. The character is dressed in topcoat and festive hat, sequined sash, and white gloves, while holding a fringed parasol, as if leading a parade – or, more precisely. one of New Orleans’ famed jazz funerals. The entertaining outfit (kudos to costume designer Azalea Fairley) is thus foreboding — and a clear clue.
Now when the Grand Marshal tells us “you protest the wet, clinging heat knowing/ you come here to be touched,” it feels almost literal. In the audio drama, the character was called the griot, whose words felt less within our reach.
Scenic designer Jason Ardizzone-West, in creating an old bar beneath a wall festooned with photographs celebrating its history, helps us understand the once solid legacy of the family business, and lighting designer Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew makes us feel how much it is now in the shadows (and, by extension, suggests the larger issue of the erasure of Black history.) As the storm worsens, the designers bring us closer to the horror.
Lizan Mitchell, who played Magalee so persuasively in the audio drama, is back, ably aided by Joniece Abbott-Pratt as Ruth, her exasperated daughter trying to get her to face what she sees as their harsh reality:
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.”
In the past two years, I’ve seen three other plays by Erika Dickerson-Despenza. The best-known was the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize prize-winner “cullud wattah,” which tells the story of the Flint water scandal through the impact of the contaminated water system on a fictional family of five Black women. Another “[hieroglyph],” was a later play in her Katrina cycle, featuring Ruth’s husband Ernest and daughter Davis, mentioned but unseen in “shadow/land.” It struck me how much more plainspoken the dialogue in “[hieroglyph]” is and how heavily it emphasizes the visual; the plot revolves around art student Davis’s obsession with artistic symbols. This says two things to me – how expansive Dickerson-Despenza’s talent, and how Davis could explain why the Public Theater’s staging of “shadow/land” makes a difference
Public Theater through May 28
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $60-$160 + fees
Written by Erika Dickerson-Despenza
Directed by Candis C. Jones,
Scenic design by Jason Ardizzone-West, costume design by Azalea Fairley, lighting design by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, sound design by Palmer Hefferan, original music composed by Delfeayo Marsalis, hair, wig and makeup design by Earon Chew Nealey, prop manager Amanda Perry, intimacy coordinator Ann James, movement director Jill M. Vallery, voice and speech coach, Julie Congress, dialect coach Dawn-Elin Fraser, dramaturg Nissy Aya
Cast: Joniece Abbott-Pratt (Ruth), Lynnette R. Freeman (Ruth Understudy), Perri Gaffney (Magalee Understudy), Lizan Mitchell (Magalee), Christine Shepard (Grand Marshal), and Joy-Marie Thompson (Grand Marshal Understudy).
Photographs by Joan Marcus