Review: A Perfect Storm of Weather and Racism in ‘shadow/land’

In its heyday, Shadowland, a New Orleans dance hall, bar and hotel, provided its Black clientele, many of them visiting jazz musicians, with the dignity and amenities (including air conditioning) they were barred from enjoying at whites-only establishments.

But on the day that Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s floridly powerful new play “shadow/land” begins — Aug. 29, 2005 — that heyday is long gone, and the place is in bad disrepair. Mostly memories live there now.

If the date doesn’t ring a bell, that’s part of the reason Dickerson-Despenza must have felt the need to write “shadow/land” in the first place. It is the opening salvo in a planned 10-play sequence about Hurricane Katrina and its long, too often invisible tendrils of disaster.

That the disaster is literally invisible here, in a thrilling Public Theater production that renders the play as a podcast, is all to the good. As directed for the ear by Candis C. Jones and performed by actors with extraordinary voices, “shadow/land,” may be better in your headphones than it would have been onstage.

Surely its densely poetic language and cataclysmic events would be too much to take in a realistic context. Even without that, the play demands a lot, bending the familiar genre in which families wrangle over property — a genre that includes Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” and Horton Foote’s “Dividing the Estate” — toward bigger aims and expressionistic ends. Depending on your taste for it, the imperfect joinery of those modes in “shadow/land” is either a problem or a mark of a handmade and intensely personal art. For me it was both.

In any case, the story is compelling. Though 80 years old and in middle-stage dementia, Magalee, the primary owner of Shadowland, shows no interest in closing what has been for many decades a proud family business. Her daughter Ruth, tired of the responsibility and cost involved, and knowing that their corner of New Orleans is in the last throes of decline, is eager to sell to a developer who promises a “face lift for the neighborhood.”

On the overdetermined day Katrina will hit, she has come to take her mother to higher ground — and to force her to sign the inevitable “papers” she hopes will free them from their straitened, careworn lives.

But living carefree is not a freedom equally distributed in a world that, as Dickerson-Despenza reveals it, is steeped in racism, especially the environmental kind. Ten minutes into the play, the storm announces itself with a violent gust of wind, a shattered window and a clock that falls portentously from the wall. Most of the city’s richer and whiter population has already evacuated, but Ruth and Magalee have waited too long; the day before, the roads were already “more congested than a chile with pneumonia,” Ruth says, and soon enough a live oak has “fainted” on top of her car.

As the floodwaters rise within Shadowland, the conflict between mother and daughter intensifies: Ruth calling for help to get out, Magalee clinging to what’s left of an identity that has merged with the building’s.

These scenes are framed by interjections from a griot, or traditional Black storyteller. This character, whom Dickerson-Despenza added for the audio version, speaks even more lushly than the others, a choice that may seem like linguistic icing or overkill depending on your tolerance for lines like “stars bedazzle a sprained black sky as the City untangles its raw limbs.”

Still, as delivered by the New Orleans poet Sunni Patterson, the largeness of the wording comes to seem like the precise correlative for the largeness of the disaster.

The balance of naturalism and otherworldliness is more complicated for the other two actors, but just as successfully achieved. As Magalee, Lizan Mitchell is wonderfully salty in her maternal mode and heartbreakingly childlike in her delusions. And as Ruth, Michelle Wilson (a star of “Sweat” at the Public and on Broadway) manages to create a fully rounded human character — with a husband, a lover, and a daughter to think of — while also serving as the play’s eyewitness to the terrible things happening outside the window.

If that’s too much for a 70-minute play to wrangle, the problem is a better one for a playwright to take on than too little. In “[hieroglyph],” the second installment in Dickerson-Despenza’s Katrina Cycle — which I saw last month, in a filmed production from the San Francisco Playhouse and the Lorraine Hansberry Theater — the mechanism by which mere events were turned into drama was also noticeably clunky. Its characters, including a 13-year-old girl and her father, survivors of Katrina who wind up in Chicago with secrets to unpack, often seem to be serving the author’s needs instead of their own.

There are times when “shadow/land” suffers from the same condition, one sign of which is the tendency of Ruth and Magalee to provide back story by telling each other (and thus us) things they would both already know.

But this play is saved — and, more than that, lifted — by its tragic vision. The production also makes an enormous difference. Delfeayo Marsalis’s haunting music, bent and blurred through memory and, thanks to Palmer Heffernan’s immersive sound design, often morphing into the sound of the storm itself, helps us understand that what’s at stake is not just a building but an entire cultural history.

That’s a big project, even before you multiply it by 10. Nor are the aftereffects of Katrina the limit of Dickerson-Despenza’s current theatrical interests. Her play “cullud wattah,” set against the backdrop of the Flint water crisis, last week won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for playwriting; the Public, which originally planned to produce it last summer, hopes to try again as soon as it is safe to do so.

An astonishing start for a 29-year-old writer. Though Dickerson-Despenza says she does not consider herself primarily a theater artist but a “cultural worker” making space for Black women, she may, like her “shadow/land” characters, find that the emergencies of our day have a different fate in mind for her.

shadow/land

Available at publictheater.org and on major podcast platforms.

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