shadow/land, the first play in Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s planned ten-play Katrina Cycle about the post-Katrina diaspora and New Orleans, begins with a Grand Marshall (Christine Shepard)–an “ancient living androgynous corpse”; “a dancer & healer”: the spirit of New Orleans calling the audience in. Dressed in glittering black and purple (the details of the Grand Marshal’s costumes are laid out precisely in the script, and realized beautifully by Azalea Fairley), with half their face painted and a spiral shaved into their close-cropped hair, the marshal weaves through the audience, dancing and teasing, before opening with a sensory ode to the city as it was: its smells, its sounds, its rhythms. And then they reel us back to one particular time and place–August 29, 2005–whipping away the caution tape that drapes the Shadowlands bar.
On their way to the Superdome in the face of Katrina, Ruth (Joniece Abbott-Pratt) and her mother, Magalee (Lizan Mitchell), stop at Shadowlands in search of Magalee’s purse. Shadowlands was the first air-conditioned hotel for Black guests in New Orleans, back in the day; the plot of land on which it sits has been in the family back to Rosaline, the first femme de couleur libre in their lineage. Ruth’s father turned it into Shadowlands, and Magalee has run it since his death, but now she’s battling dementia, and Ruth wants to sell to a developer and move on with her life. Ruth wants to be free–of legacy, of the choices she’s made in life–Magalee wants to hold on. These are discussions they’ve had a million times before, weightier now as Magalee clicks in and out of lucidity.
When a tree falls on their car as they’re trying to beat the storm to shelter, Ruth and Magalee are trapped in the slowly flooding bar, and the succeeding days–no power, water rising, heat building, supplies of food and water dwindling–slowly tear them down. Trapped together, they don’t at first break any new ground in their relationship; they don’t solve any crises or mend any fences–they reminisce, they wait, and finally they’re broken down into exhausted honesty. Through it all, the Grand Marshal weaves in and out, dancing sinuously around the periphery of the space, interjecting sometimes as narrator, intervening sometimes as ancestor, as spirit, as interlocutor with the dead.
The play began its life at the Public as an audio production during the pandemic theater closures, and you can easily see how spooky and tense the core would have been in that context (though the Grand Marshal’s engagement with the other characters and the audience would be hard to duplicate in audio). Palmer Hefferan’s sound design brings the menace of the storm and the tease of New Orleans music, and uses effects on the voices to calibrate rhythm and tone (especially the Marshal, who’s amplified in a different way than the two women).
But the other production elements here come to glorious life: All the water is real, Dickerson-Despenze says in the script, and Jason Ardizzone-West’s set brings that home; the bar is shabby and well-worn, and then it floods: a simmering, toxic pool of tainted water, glittering darkly in the lights, with mysterious floating patches, fills the area around the bar. Cleverly, the rest of the space sinks toward the floor, tricking us into seeing the water as even deeper than it is.. Jeannette Oi-Suk Yew’s lighting brings the sickly purple glow of a storm, the deep saturated blues and reds of a hot summer night in a blackout, the more tentative mysterious glow around the Marshal.
And the whole is anchored in a magnificent performance by the great Lizan Mitchell, as a woman who’s fighting losing her mind by clinging to her roots. (Mitchell also appeared in Dickerson-Despenza’s Cullud Wattuh at the Public two years ago, and perhaps this role was developed with her in mind, so perfectly is she cast.) Mitchell’s performance is rich in shades: the craftiness with which she tries to build structures to hide her dementia, the childishness that comes over her when she loses her grip, the joy she takes in her memories, both the love and the frustration she feels toward her daughter. Joniece Abbott-Pratt is solid as Ruth, as well, though Ruth’s confusion about her own emotions makes her tricky to play.
Dickerson-Despenza’s plays are unique on the page, bristling with slashes and caesuras, syncopated line breaks and long drumbeats of pauses “owned” by characters; she calls her practice “jook joint writing.” Here, Candis C. Jones’s lucid direction takes the dictates laid down by the structure for volume, pace, rhythm, and goes to two different places with them, clearly showing the difference in reality, in tone, between the shadowy and poetic world the Marshal inhabits and the gruelingly realistic storm-struck urban environment of the other two characters. Abbott-Pratt and Mitchell are grounded, clinging to earth amid all that water; Shepard is more teasing, more mysterious. The Marshal’s language can sometimes stray too far into archetype; their physical presence is more interesting and ambiguous than the words they say. But that troubling of the boundary between the realms make the play something more unsettled than a tight two-hander, a showdown between mother and daughter over how to live with one’s family legacy and how to find one’s place and freedom in the world, set against the backdrop of the hurricane that will end their world as they know it. The interplay of the two realms is sometimes provocative, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes murky, but always pushes the play out of simple realism into something darker and stranger–even as the realistic story contains plenty of emotion all by itself.
As the first play of a major cycle, shadow/land feels like a first chapter, a minimalist anchor for a maximalist whole to come. Start zoomed in tight on one small story; prepare to spread–as the floodwaters spread–out into the larger saga. Magalee and Ruth’s tragedy is the microcosm of the whole, and they share a surname, Despenza, with the playwright; this is a story in which she is deeply, passionately rooted. I’m eager to see what comes next.