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

Misani | 4/12/2011, 5:27 p.m.
I love stories--wonderful, enlightening stories that teach us something that we had no idea about....
Casting Pearls:'On the Levee' lets loose on the Great Flood of 1927

Against this realistic backdrop, the deBessonet, Gardley and Almond collaboration weaves a multi-tiered story of two fathers and their sons. The patriarchs are the overly humble Joe Gooden, a Black bootblack movingly portrayed by Dion Graham, and the bigger-than-life former Senator LeRoy Percy, the wealthiest white man in town, who is winningly enacted by Michael Siberry. Their sons are James Gooden, played by the scene-stealer Amari Cheatom, proprietor of the Sugar Shack, a juke joint, and Will Percy (Seth Numrich), who does an admirable job as the poet, former soldier and an on-the-down-low gay man torn between compassion for the laborers and commitment to his societal class.

Rounding out this story are Queen Black, richly portrayed by Harriett D. Foy, Percy's housekeeper (his cigar buddy and, from what one may deduce, his clandestine lover) who runs his home like it was her own; the Levee Men Buford (Brian D. Coats) and Cephus (Jacob Ming-Trent), who are perfectly cast in their roles; and the flirty, silly yet calculating Petulia Croserie (Maria Couch), who was on point depicting her character; as was Nana Pearson (Shelly Thomas) as James' girlfriend, who, when she was afforded the opportunity, opted out of being Black, choosing instead to "pass"; and Puddin Birdsong (April Mathis), Rev. Booker's daughter, who provided some brilliant, light moments in the play. The dual roles of the cold and calculating foreman levee supervisor and L'Amour mason, a local bachelor (Stephen Plunkett), was well acted, as were the double roles of Old Lucas, a town elder, and Rev. Booker (Chuck Cooper). As usual Cooper was flawless.

These familiar characters fall into two classes: the privileged and entitled and the laborers, servants and impoverished. The plot is also a familiar one. We've seen this scenario before in America's race game, where the victimization of Blacks is par for the course. These oppression themes on stage have played out in "Miss Evers Boys," "The Scottsboro Boys," and "A Soldier's Story," just to mention a few. This time it is the story of the Black laborers toiling on the levee, who are repaid for their service by being left behind in what eventually become "slave camps."

Wonderful symbolisms pop up, including the white balcony above the stage, symbolic of the homes on the hills where the white residents lived that were saved, and the white door (no picket fence), representative of the doomed Black community, where a proud Black man meets his death by a bullet in the back. Also, there's the spirit of the river, foreshadowing events to come. It's all so painful for the Black citizens of this Mississippi town. And this is why the dancing shadow puppets at the top of the show work well. It is a dramatic, moving symbol of the shroud used by Black America to cover the pain.

And with the close of the curtain, the Casting Pearls Awards are presented to the entire company of "On the Levee," which runs through July 11. For tickets, call (646) 223-3010. You may also visit www.lct3.

To contact the "Casting Pearls" series team, please e-mail us at