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Casting Pearls:'On the Levee' lets loose on the Great Flood of 1927

Misani | 4/12/2011, 5:27 p.m.
Casting Pearls:'On the Levee' lets loose on the Great Flood of 1927

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Casting Pearls:'On the Levee' lets loose on the Great Flood of 1927

I love stories--wonderful, enlightening stories that teach us something that we had no idea about. I also like visiting new, unique venues. For me, a special setting serves to enhance the theater experience. And, of course, I am fascinated with great talent be they the brilliant playwrights and directors who create and bring an exciting new work to light or the actors, who, through their genius, intelligence and skills, interpret and bring a significant role to life.

Recently, I was treated to all of these things when I attended the Lincoln Center Theater's LCT3 World Premiere production of "On the Levee," a play with music conceived and directed by Lear deBessonet, play by Marcus Gardley and music and lyrics by Todd Almond.

Arriving at the Duke on 42nd Street (229 West 42nd Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue), I proceeded to the second floor of the 10-story building, and voila! I found myself in an absolutely adorable space. Located in the New 42nd Street Studios building, the Duke is a 200-seat theater that is the perfect fit for experiencing "On the Levee." The additional bonus is getting a $20 ticket to attend a top-notch LCT3 production in the heart of the Broadway district teeming with energy and non-stop excitement.

The mood of the play was reflected silently yet piercingly prior to the production with Kara Walker's provocative poster art. Enslaved on an upstage screen, Walker's images depicted the recurring image of three dark shadow puppets with grotesque, exaggerated features. Two were of shimmy-shaking dancing women and the other, a banjo-strumming barefoot man, conjuring up stereotypes of the happy-go-lucky Negro and Negress. These disturbing images also color the play's program flyer and ad.

As the play opens, we hear the Levee Men singing a work song--think Sam Cook's anthem "Chain Gang" (RCA, 1960). Culling from the script as per Gardley's description, the initial images on screen transform into "the shadow of a man looking down upon other men working on the chain gang. It begins with one shadow puppet lifting and pans back to reveal hundreds, maybe thousands of men--the scale is massive. As the film zooms back in to just a few workers, lights rise on the actual human workers on the stage.

This innovative, surreal-to-real opening is powerful. In the dark recesses of the mind, as well as in the darkened Duke theater, white America's perception of these Black men as shadows and puppets to be barked at and ordered around comes through loud and clear. Yet as the stage lights illuminate these "shadows," the men are transformed into who they are and have always been: human beings.

In fact, as the story unfolds, these Black men end up the real unsung heroes of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. As the story develops, we learn that on April 22 of that year, 13,000 African-American citizens of Greenville were "left stranded on the town levee as rescue boats ferried 33 white women and children to safety." Greenville's Black residents were left to hold back the waters. In effect, the area was turned into a forced labor camp created by white planters unwilling to lose local workers.