When we call a new work an “ideas play,” it can sound forgiving – or even condescending. The playwright may not view their work this way; the theater’s marketing department might not be dying to hear ‘ideas play’ either. In the case of Travisville though, it feels like meeting the play on its own terms. A new play by William Jackson Harper, currently being presented by Ensemble Studio Theatre, Travisville ultimately doesn’t live on its characters or its stagecraft. Only when Harper fully embraces the stage as an ideological battleground does his play truly soar.
In the fall of 1964, shortly after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, a small Texas town is roiled by division around the construction of a new business center (essentially a mall). Its proposed construction site is Fannin Gardens, home to the city’s poorer residents – most of them black. Can their forced displacement be accepted as a necessary compromise by the town’s black leaders? Influential pastor and power broker Elder Alvin Hearts is urging his congregation to accept the displacement for the greater good – and despite some doubts, his likely successor Minister Ora Fletcher is prepared to go along. That is until young radical Zeke Phillips arrives in town, and stirs up the debate.
Minister Fletcher sits at the center of the play’s ideological split and is also the only fleshed out character. As beautifully played by Bjorn DuPaty, Fletcher is all raging uncertainties and bubbling frustration. To the play’s credit, it is never entirely clear on what side Fletcher will land. He bounces back and forth between gradualism and radicalism more than once, with a hesitance that feels very human. In quieter scenes with his wife we also see the relaxed, goofy character Fletcher wishes he had the freedom to be all the time. In the scenes, DuPaty hits on a beautiful notion in Harper’s text: this fight is important to Fletcher, but it is also entirely forced upon him.
While we do learn a little about Fletcher as a person, the other characters do not gain similar nuance. The outsider figure, Zeke Phillips, proves a particular challenge. Phillips is written as calm and restrained, holding back on his more radical leanings while couching his ideology in achievable measures. The nuance is nice, but this story already has characters burying their anger – it needs a counterpoint, which Phillips never really provides. Sheldon Best struggles to reconcile the contradictions of his character, who doesn’t seem nearly as naïve or big-headed as his opponents perceive him. If that’s the idea, it’s not one Harper fully fleshes out.
Meanwhile the town’s residents are given plentiful stagetime to present a variety of viewpoints. All of these moments, mostly speeches, are elegantly written and performed. One monologue about a horrific act of violence in Fannin Gardens is particularly effective, and beautifully performed by Stori Ayers. Yet by the play’s second act, it feels like the action is constantly freezing to allow space for another speech. All of this remains engaging, thanks to the careful precision of Harper’s language, but there is little momentum to the proceedings.
Some energy does return when Fletcher must finally decide, late in the play, where he will choose to stand on Travisville. Fletcher himself seems uncertain until the moment he starts speaking, and watching DuPaty play his decision is a wonder. In a play that mostly struggles to connect debate with inner struggles, though, this scene proves an exception to the rule.
One early scene in Travisville stands out as its most successful. In the deacons’ office of Hearts’ church, five black leaders of disparate perspectives gather to discuss a response to Zeke Phillips’ arrival. As ideas are batted around and agendas hashed out, the ideological conflicts underpinning Harper’s work come to a vibrant life. The scene reflects not only the complexity of the issues facing the community, but also the unavoidable role of language and presentation in dominating a debate. Character is not the focus – yet, this is the play’s strongest moment. The chaos of ideas clashing amidst sincere attempts to chart a path forward – whether or not that’s Harper’s primary interest – in this moment, makes for thrilling theater.