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Theatre Review by James Wilson - May 4, 2023

Lizan Mitchell and Joniece Abbott-Pratt
Photo by Joan Marcus
The press materials for Erika Dickerson-Despenza's new play at the Public Theater request that the title, shadow/land, be documented using lowercase letters. In the first thirty minutes or so, this choice seems fitting. While set in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, the play appears to be a small domestic drama as a mother and daughter rehash decades-old conflicts and squabble over the impending sale of the family business, a hotel and music venue. As the city floods and death and destruction surround the women, the play takes on a bigness, and the overwhelming histories, legacies and ghosts of New Orleans fill the tiny space, and their puniness is further amplified.

Shadowland is the name of the first air-conditioned hotel for Black people in New Orleans, and its nightclub hosted some of the most notable musicians of the twentieth century. According to the play, even Mahalia Jackson stopped by to perform an occasional gospel brunch. In the fictionalized drama, Ruth (Joniece Abbott-Pratt) is completing paperwork and taking photos of the moldering bar as Hurricane Katrina barrels toward the city center. Ruth, who is described as "a queer woman in a heterosexual marriage," shoulders the responsibilities of the family and is ready to begin a new chapter in her life. That chapter does not include the upkeep of Shadowland.

Her mother Magalee (Lizan Mitchell) is in the middle stages of dementia. She has clear memories of the performers who passed through the club as well as her husband, who was a trombonist in the house band. She forgets some things, though, such as the fact that her daughter is married, and she has a habit of wandering, or "sauntering" as she explains, off by herself.

The third character of the play is a parade Grand Marshal (Christine Shepard), who drifts in and out of the scenes like the Emcee from Cabaret. Dressed in a snazzy suit, wearing a dazzling sash and an elaborate flowered headdress, she recalls the jubilant leaders of second-line parades that commemorate funerals, weddings, and other meaningful occasions. The Grand Marshal engages the audience while also providing a link to the spiritual and corporeal worlds of New Orleans. The joyful heritage and rich culture, not to mention the urban devastations, are all encapsulated through this carnivalesque character.

Before long, Ruth and Magalee are trapped in the bar as the city floods, which is brilliantly represented by the production's design team, including Jason Ardizzone-West (scenic), Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew (lighting), and Palmer Hefferan (sound). (Azalea Fairley designed the costumes and includes a humorous reminder why mothers have often reminded children to wear their best underwear in case of an emergency.) The two women are stranded on the bar that resembles a deserted island in the middle of a vast, unforgiving sea, and they seek comfort and safety among the spectral inhabitants of Shadowland.

Directed by Candis C. Jones, shadow/land is harrowing as it presents the increasingly dire circumstances of the two women. The play also addresses difficult social and political issues, including colorism (Ruth is darker-skinned than her mother and sister), racism, and the shameful disregard accorded the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Yet there are moments of ebullience, particularly when the women celebrate the music and dance of their Afro-Creole antecedents. In fact, in these instances, joy, as it is displayed in second-line parade jazz funerals, is used as a tool of resistance.

The performances are excellent. Abbott-Pratt and Mitchell exude genuine mother-daughter love as well as a lifetime of exasperation and unresolved conflicts. The characters allude to the traumas in their past and the difficulties in their present, but the women are presented as strong and powerful.

As the Grand Marshal, Shepard is both insidious and convivial, and she has a rich and creamy singing voice (as do Abbott-Pratt and Mitchel). She commandingly summons the New Orleans ancestry as she insinuates herself within the production's background and foreground.

Dickerson-Despenza explains that the play is the first installment in a 10-play Katrina Cycle. As shadow/land forcefully shows, the hurricane and its aftermath remain a devastating, painful, and shameful period in U.S. history and reveal the depths of injustice in this country. If nothing else, the series of plays should offer a suitable monument to the victims of Katrina and a chance to artistically redress a national atrocity.

Through May 28, 2023
The Public Theater, LuEsther Hall, 425 Lafayette Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: