• Tue. May 30th, 2023

‘shadow/land’ Review: What the Storm Washes Away

May 5, 2023

There are mothers who will tell you, no matter the circumstance, exactly what’s what. Even as the sky crashes down, they’ll judge your evacuation outfit and then remind you who’s to thank that you’re still standing on two feet. In Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s “shadow/land,” which opened on Thursday at the Public Theater, that unfiltered candor is both a loving reflex and the lifeline for an endangered legacy.

It’s 2005 and Hurricane Katrina is bearing down on Central City in New Orleans, but Magalee (Lizan Mitchell) has forgotten her purse inside the bar that’s belonged to her family for generations, where she and her daughter Ruth (Joniece Abbott-Pratt) dally just long enough to get trapped by the storm. Ruth is ready to cast off the club, named shadow/land, like an albatross; she wants “a bottomless, sweepin joy” that she’s not getting from tending bar, or from her husband, who’s already sheltering in the Superdome with their teenage daughter.

As mother and daughter unknowingly await disaster, Magalee urges Ruth not to sell the club, though it’s a husk of what it was in its heyday. In half-lucid reveries, the 80-year-old Magalee recalls its genealogy, reaching back to tenuous boom times for Black enterprise. Ruth knows the story well enough to join her mother’s refrain in a kind of call-and-response. “Learn how to desire what you already got,” Magalee bluntly says of her daughter’s hard-won inheritance.

Of course, what they already have is about to be drowned in oil-black water. It’s a collision course that Dickerson-Despenza and the director Candis C. Jones render in 90 dread-filled, soul-seeking minutes, zooming in on the devastation of lives otherwise seen by outsiders only from a drone-footage distance. Behind the bar, a wall of black-and-white photos chronicle Magalee and Ruth’s ancestors, as floodwaters gurgle up through the floor and leave their survivors stranded on the bar top (set design is by Jason Ardizzone-West).

As in her play “Cullud Wattah,” which explores the fallout of the Flint, Mich., water crisis, Dickerson-Despenza dramatizes the consequences of environmental racism and its disproportionate impact on Black women. “shadow/land,” which the Public Theater produced as an audio play in 2021, is a poetic excavation of memory, tracing the ripple effects of triumphs and trauma through generations. Magalee also remembers, for example, when the authorities blew up a levy that flooded poor Black neighborhoods when she was a girl. Katrina’s wrath would also hit Black residents hardest, and its aftermath reverberated long after the water receded.

Dickerson-Despenza’s language is rich in lyricism and figurative association, with annotated influences in the text that include Adrienne Rich and Zora Neale Hurston. And her dialogue calls attention to, among other things, colorism, queerness and the cultural imperialism of New Orleans tourism. It may be that the play tries to take on too much, feeling at times more like a treatise than a character-driven drama, but that’s partly because so much is in danger of being lost. (“shadow/land” is her first in a planned 10-play cycle about Katrina.)

Of the expressive tools that “shadow/land” deploys, the cast is the most immediate and legible. A third character, known as the grand marshal (Christine Shepard), haunts the show’s periphery, snapping limbs in tailored and shimmering Creole finery, interjecting verse that illuminates the allure of the city’s native eroticism and proximity to death. (The movement director is Jill M. Vallery and the costumes are by Azalea Fairley.)

Abbott-Pratt and Mitchell are challenged with playing characters who are held captive not only by society, but by the script, which is somewhat weighed down by the exposition inherent to oral histories. But they embody the push and pull of a mother-daughter bond with captivating ease and grace. At once imperious and fragile, Mitchell’s Magalee may not remember what she ate for breakfast, but she will never let Ruth forget the importance of honoring their predecessors, the sacrifices they made and the gifts they left behind. Who else will share their stories when the evidence gets washed away?

Through May 28 at the Public Theater, Manhattan; publictheater.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

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