Erika Dickerson-Despenza Delivers a Force of Nature
by Beau McGlasson
It can be a challenge to find joy and beauty in the face of cruelty, racism, and government failings. Sometimes it can even feel impossible.
Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s difficult and heart-rending “shadow/land” responds to real oppression and racism with visible Black joy. She expertly uncovers beauty and meaning in life in New Orleans, inundated by Hurricane Katrina. “shadow/land” delivers blow after blow but maintains a surprising optimism.
On the eve of Katrina’s landfall, the powerful mother Magalee (Lizan Mitchell) argues with her practical daughter Ruth (Joniece Abbott-Pratt) about selling their famed jazz club, called Shadowland. Magalee is against it and tells Ruth that the club is a “site of pain turned into a palace of pleasure.”
The third role, the Grand Marshal (dynamite Christine Shepard), kicks off the production with a show-stealing one-woman Second Line, a traditional New Orleans parade. Shepard dances, smokes, and drinks liquor from the bottle. She teases multiple members of the audience (including myself), before settling into the role of spiritual narrator and trickster.
Despite the harrowing disaster, Dickerson-Despenza creates characters whose full lives and intimate histories make us laugh almost as much as cry. Director Candis C. Jones creates a haunting, memorable tone, as the realistic set fills with water. She sets the stage for stellar performances, letting dialogue breathe and build naturalistically. We feel as if we are huddled with the characters, witnessing a conversation behind closed doors.
Lizan Mitchell delivers a rousing performance as an aging woman suffering from dementia. Magalee stubbornly resists losing her sense of self. When Ruth accuses her of getting lost due to dementia, Magalee responds, “I don’t wander. I saunter.” Her fiery disposition, built on years as a dancer, flames higher even as her mind weakens.
Magalee and Ruth argue ferociously as the hurricane lands. Is it finally time to sell ShadowLand? The club and hotel Magalee built with her late husband? As the tide rises, their conflict grows from Magalee’s failing health to Ruth’s marriage, possible affair, and destiny.
Dickerson-Despenza expertly transforms pain into pleasure as she confronts race and gender in the eye of Katrina. “shadow/land” is a cast and crew primarily comprised of Black, Brown, and queer women/femmes. This is intentional. The horror of Katrina affects all of New Orleans but failing infrastructure and government failures uniquely harmed the Black community, especially Black women.
New Orleans, or the “Big Muddy” as Grand Marshal calls it, the city that smells of “spilled whiskey and sunbaked piss,” perseveres because of spirits like Magalee’s. The stories of the downtrodden and beaten shape the character of New Orleans.
The sultry jazz that rises from the French Quarter and the sweat that stings your nose create the legend of The Big Easy.
Magalee explains that early in life she gave up her promising dance career because “even the talented colored girls die broke.” No matter how the story ends, we know that Magalee will never die broke. Rather than money, she leaves a stalwart daughter and an artistic legacy in a city forever indebted to her indomitable spirit.
“shadow/land” by Erika Dickerson-Despenza, directed by Candis C. Jones, at The Public Theater, New York, N.Y. Info: PublicTheater.org – to May 28, 2023.
Cast: Joniece Abbott-Pratt, Lizan Mitchell, and Christine Shepard.
Banner photo: Lizan Mitchell & Joniece Abbott-Pratt in “shadow/land” at The Public Theater, N.Y. Photos by Joan Marcus