by Brittany Crowell
In SHADOW/LAND the new audio play by Erika Dickerson-Despenza, a mother suffering from middle-stage dementia and a daughter looking to recreate herself get stuck in Shadowland, the family’s historic New Orleans hotel and dancehall, during the devastating Hurricane Katrina.
Streaming on the Public Play Now platform as well as your other podcast streaming sites as of April 13, 2021, Dickerson-Despenza’s new play truly showcases the Tow Playwright-in-Residence and Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award winner’s skill at poetry, metaphor, and language weaving.
In SHADOW/LAND, the catastrophic hurricane serves as not only an historic timeline marker for the piece, but also a metaphor for its heroine Ruth, who feels unsettled and unsatisfied in her life and marriage. She has come to collect her elderly mother, Magalee, and help her evacuate from the storm, while also trying to convince her to sell her the dance hall.
The audio play soon breaks into its own storm of revelations, as the narrative blows between mother and daughters’ differing viewpoints on home, success, and return. Ghosts of the past reveal themselves and showcase both the growth and parallels between generations, while the women watch post-storm as “yankees” in boats and helicopters pass by, seemingly deaf to their cries for help.
Dickerson-Despenza’s words fly off the page with the committed performances of Lizan Mitchell (Magalee) and Michelle Wilson (Ruth), however this made me yearn for a chance to sit with some of her poetry, observe her master stitch-work, and inspect the tears along the seams that allow these characters to lay wide open, as the play sinks deeper and deeper into the hallowed land on which it was set. I almost wished that the play were a book I could read, re-read, and underline, its poetry cut so deep.
The tone of the piece rises and falls like the waves of a storm to some success, at other times the desperation pokes through the poetic mist and pulls the listener back towards a more immediate reality. Music, song, and sounds are expertly used to try to bring the reader deeper into the current of the “storm,” the destruction of the physical world around these women provoking a visceral and earthly awakening within them as, with hands of indigo, they swim their way closer to each other and their inherited history. As Magalee tells Ruth in the eye of the storm, “… what you call a flood, water knows as a return.
SHADOW/LAND shines light of all that lies in the periphery, blurring the lines of history and past, destiny and duty, and proving that, “we are our own uncertain saviors, floating towards a future past.”
by Erika Dickerson-Despenza; directed by Candis. C. Jones
WITH -Te’Era Coleman, Lizan Mitchell, Lance E. Nichols, Lori Elizabeth Parquet, Sunni Patterson, and Michelle Wilson
Original music by Delfeayo Marsalis; sound design by Palmer Hefferan; audio coordination and recording engineering by Will Pickens; lead audio engineering by Black Rose Sound (Izumi Rosas and Chris Morocco); audio engineering by Twi McCallum; dramaturgical consulting by Lauren A. Whitehead; creative content producing by Soyica Colbert; dialect coaching by Dawn-Elin Fraser; and production stage management by Kamra A. Jacobs. Presented by The Public Theater’s ‘Public Play Now’: Oskar Eustis, artistic director. www.publictheater.org/playnow. Through April 13,2022. 72 minutes.