By Ilaria Cutolo


As shadow/land, now at the Public Theater, opens, we are greeted by the Grand Marshall, (Christine Shepard,) a transient trickster, muse, and mystic-reminiscent of something supernatural, voodoo, ancient and very New Orleans.  She engages individual audience members to stand up and dance to the upbeat seductive rhythms of Delfeayo Marsalis . We can’t help but clap and move, and I am eager for what awaits me.

shadow/land transports us to the heart of New Orleans 2005; the year Hurricane Katrina mades her catastrophic landing. The play is set in a black-owned nightclub spanning multiple generations of a once hopping, cultural hotbed of jazz greats. Ruth, (Joniece Abbott-Pratt), desperate to get to safer ground, must contend with her determined octogenarian mother, Magalee, played by powerhouse Lizan Mitchell, who suffers from middle stage dementia and is in no hurry to leave her club for a meager storm. Over the next 90 minutes we witness first hand the mother-daughter dynamic; their loves, regrets, denials, pain and the agony that befalls the two women as they spend days trapped on top of their nightclubs’s bar surrounded by water. 

Magalee moves hypnotically from rational, wise, and alert to mystical slips into past states of consciousness. The intensity and urgency of her every word create a high stakes drama, yet, we find the calm and space to process all this with our magical companion, The Grand Marshall. She brings us back to an ethereal landscape, transcending space and time. Where is the humanity-this play asks? Where does legacy- in this instance-black legacy- stand a chance amid the chaos of a natural disaster?

Ruth (Abbott-Pratt) unhappy in her marriage, yearns for something more than the status quo.  In a show of ecstatic joy and delirium, she gives a spine tingling performance, reveling in her sexuality and humanity.

The play becomes an island of hope and despair, of memory and of longing. A study in human loss, love, legacy and all that was, is, and may never come to be. We see past and present converge. Generational and cultural conflicts collide, untangle and swoop to the surface all while waiting for help that may never come.

I would be remiss not to mention the ingenuity of Jason Ardizzone-West who created a set that appears to be floating on water.

Go see this play. 

shadow/land– Written by Erika Dickerson-Despenza; Directed by Candise C. Jones

WITH: Joniece Abbott-Pratt (Ruth),  Lizan Mitchell (Magalee),Christine Shepard (GrandMarshal)

Scenic design by Jason Ardizzone-West; costume design by Azalea Fairley; lighting design by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew; sound design by Palmer Hefferan; original music composed by Delfeayo Marsalis; hair, wig, and makeup design by Earon Chew Nealey; movement direction by Jill M. Vallery; and intimacy coordination by Ann James. At The Public Theater, 212-539-8624, Through Sunday, May 21. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.