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This Land Was Made

Theatre Review by James Wilson - June 4, 2023

Leland Fowler, Libya V. Pugh, and Antoinette Crowe-Legacy
Photo by Carol Rosegg
The narrator and main character of Tori Sampson's This Land Was Made, now running at the Vineyard Theatre, identifies herself as a griot. Simultaneously storytellers, poets, and living archives, griots are an essential element of the oral traditions of West Africa. They are the conduits to the past, and they carry the narratives of their ancestors within them. At a time when Black histories are in danger of being stifled, Sampson chronicles the emergence of the Black Panther Party and insists that we not only take in the national story but also pass it along.

The play is set in Oakland of 1967 and takes place mainly in Ms. Trish's Bar, a cozy establishment in which the regular denizens trade insults, talk politics, and, with a barber chair conveniently set up next to the counter, can get a trim. (Sampson explains in a program note that as a youth, "Cheers" was an impressionable show, and Wilson Chin's excellent set, offering a nod to the famous bar with a stairway ascending offstage, is comfortingly familiar.)

Sassy (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), the self-described griot, is a burgeoning writer, and while initially politically distanced, she intends to document the lives of the people of Oakland. Her mother and the bar's owner, Ms. Trish (Libya V. Pugh), is a no-nonsense proprietor, but the rumblings of Oakland's racial unrest have made her yearn to return to her native Baton Rouge.

The patrons include Mr. Far (Ezra Knight), who, like Ms. Trish, can't comprehend the urge for protests, sit ins, and freedom rides. "Back in my day," he says, "we didn't have time for all that sitting and riding around. We were too busy working." Drew (Leland Fowler) is a young firebrand, but as the character description explains, is "struggling to find his purpose."

Sassy's love interest is Troy (Matthew Griffin), an ambitious and conscientious college student who is determined to become a lawyer. And rounding out the group of young people is Gail (Yasha Jackson), Sassy's vivacious and alluring best friend. Gail is also the former girlfriend of Sassy's brother who was killed in Vietnam the year before.

The lives of the characters are completely upturned with a visit to the bar by Huey P. Newton (Julian Elijah Martinez), the co-founder of the Black Panthers. Huey and his friend Gene (Curtis Morlaye) implicate the close-knit community in the (real-life) murder of police officer John Frey (Oliver Palmer), which also involved officer Herbert Heanes (Sean Patrick Higgins).

Griots, like the ancient bards of epic poetry and similar to the narrators of fantastic folk tales, are known to embellish and refashion historical events. They are, one could say, the original purveyors of alternative facts, and Sassy's presentation of Newton's involvement in the killing of Frey (for which Newton's guilty verdict was later overturned) proceeds in this tradition. As she explains, "Many will make the assumption there are missing pieces, people and evidence that could string the truths of this story together. Those beings and artifacts have never been revealed." What follows, then, is a speculative account of those circumstances.

Directed by Taylor Reynolds, the production effectively captures the simmering anger and liberatory optimism, as well as the palpable and omnipresent sense of social injustice. Additionally, the impressive ensemble conveys the range of attitudes toward the Black Power movement, forcefully showing that not everyone was riding the wave of political activism, and some were swept into it by the powerful undertow. (The design team evocatively captures the era. In addition to the set, the period is brought to life by Adam Honoré's lighting, Dominique Fawn Hill and DeShon Elem's costumes, Fan Zhang's sound and original music, and notably Nikiya Mathis's hair and wig design.)

Nevertheless, the play, particularly in the second act, cannot bear the competing breezy sit-com humor, melodramatic intrigues, militant outcry, and historical revisions. And while we may never know what happened that caused the death of John Frey, the version presented here fails the test of plausibility. There is also, as evident by the play's clipped title, a certain amount of ambivalence toward the events and the characters. Without "you" and "me," there is no us, and the collective urgency of the movement is subsumed in a single act of violence.

Indeed, the plot does a disservice to the Black Panthers by revolving almost solely on one (horrible) event associated with its leader. Skimming over the community empowerment the Party also arguably achieved, it is hard to grasp from the play our collective need to recall their legacy. At the end of the play, the narrator finally embraces the you and me into the story, but it seems too late.

One of my writing teachers used to say that when telling a story, it's okay to lie as long as it gets you to the truth. The truth may be elusive in This Land Was Made, but there are flashes of brilliance in the delivery. And that may be enough to make one sit up and listen.

This Land Was Made
Through June 25, 2023
Vineyard Theatre
108 E. 15th Street
Tickets online and current performance schedule: