SHADOW/LAND: A poetic force reckoning with the past

Presented by The Public Theater
Written by Erika Dickerson-Despenza
Directed by Candis C. Jones
Music composed by Delfeayo Marsalis
Sound design by Palmer Hefferan
Featuring Te’Era Coleman, Lizan Mitchell, Lance E. Nichols, Lori Elizabeth Parquet, Sunni Patterson, and Michelle Wilson.

The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
(at Astor Place)
New York, NY 10003
The Public Theater on Facebook 

Review by Afrikah Smith

PODCAST — Making its world premiere, SHADOW/LAND is a poetic force to be reckoned with. Mixing jazz and jook joint writing, Erika Dickerson-Despenza presents a vibrant play with a reckoning with the past.

Sweeping us back to 2005 New Orleans, Louisiana, Hurricane Katrina moves its way over to Shadowland where Magalee (Lizan Mitchell) and Ruth (Michelle Wilson) are rushing to grab essentials before running to the local superdome for shelter. Grabbing food, water, and paperwork, Ruth sees the opportunity to present Magalee news of selling the property. With middle stage dementia, Magalee holds tight to the memories of Shadowland, their family business rich with nostalgia and history of being New Orleans’s first air-conditioned dancehall and hotel for Black people. Magalee and Ruth lose sight of the hurricane as they argue, and become stuck in Shadowland with the rising water and high winds. Come hell or high water, Ruth must reckon with what she is willing to let go.

The first installment of a 10-play cycle, SHADOW/LAND examines Hurricane Katrina’s ongoing effects of disaster, evacuation, displacement, and urban renewal. Playwright Erika Dickerson-Despenza has an ear for language: she brings out the natural poetry between Ruth and Magalee and the griot; she observes and narrates their external and inner worlds. 

Accompanied with Delfeayo Marsalis’ original compositions, the elements of jazz underscore the weight and rhythm of the characters’ dialogues. I felt my senses heighten as the jazz swirled in my ears, calling my spirit to listen to every word. During the moments where we are brought to moments of the past, I could visualize Shadowland and hear the trumpets, drums, and other brass instruments bringing warmth to my ears. As the music became distorted and ebbed and flowed into the sound design by Palmer Hefferan, I sat on the edge of my seat and felt the tension and buildup of the circumstances that rose with the black waters and the play itself.

Focusing solely on Black women, Dickerson-Despenza brings to light an important narrative often excluded in news media: the racial inequity that Black communities, more specifically to name, Black women and matriarchs, have faced. From disproportionate, slow aid to the exploitative, discriminatory reports painting victims as criminals, Dickerson-Despenza has created a way to personalize the narrative of these in-depth issues for audiences to witness and understand. Through Ruth and Magalee, we are given a perspective into the realities that many New Orleans residents faced 16 years ago that still affect them today.

Lizan Mitchell and Michelle Wilson’s performance as a mother-daughter duo was dynamic. Really taking in the element of style and jook joint writing, they both become living poetry as Dickerson-Despenza has crafted; honoring the artistic influences of Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange, and Zora Neale Hurston to name a few.

I was drawn to Lizan Mitchell’s performance as Magalee who conjured the past and present; riling up my spirit whenever she spoke and making me laugh in the quieter moments. Especially when Magalee’s forgetfulness gets the best of her. Opposite to Mitchell, Wilson does a fantastic job in showcasing Ruth’s frustration and dilemma in reflecting on what she is willing to let go and the risks she’s willing to take. When they have their monologue moments, I feel as though magic is happening as jazz, drums, and voices accent their performance.

SHADOW/LAND makes you reckon with whose voices are we missing when we speak about disaster and what do we do in the aftermath. Presented by The Public Theater, SHADOW/LAND is available for free on-demand listening on their website, Spotify, and Apple Podcasts.

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