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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.