Windswept Memories Remembered and Lost in ‘shadow/land’

By Bob Cooley

The rainy, 96% humidity day seemed an oddly appropriate one to attend the world-premiere staging of Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s ‘shadow/land,’ currently playing at The Public Theater. This is a play about family, love, loss, memories and hopes set in New Orleans against the backdrop of the first day of Hurricane Katrina.

LIZAN MITCHELL AND JONIECE ABBOTT-PRATT (as Magalee and Ruth) watch the waters of Hurricane Katrina rise in The Public’s production of shadow/land. Photo by Joan Marcus for The Public Theater.

shadow/land opens with Ruth (Joniece Abbott-Pratt) and her 80 yr. old mother, Magalee (Lizan Mitchell), stopping by their eponymously named aging bar and nightclub to gather a few things just as Hurricane Katrina descends on the city.

Throughout the show, the Grand Marshal (Christine Shepard) drifts in and between scenes as a spirit of New Orleans / poetic griot floating between the ephemeral and reality of the women’s dire situation.

Magalee is reluctant to see Ruth sell the generations-owned family business that once served as a vibrant and celebrated destination for Black patrons and musicians during the Jim Crow era. It has now fallen to disrepair and waning patronage as the downtown and tourist areas of the city grow. These concerns are quickly set aside as Katrina comes into full effect and the levees break. The women find themselves trapped in the bar as the walls literally and metaphorically crumble around them.

Lizan Mitchell and Joniece Abbott-Pratt are wonderfully cast as mother and daughter in the production. Their connection is palpable with all of the heart, soul and challenges of familial love. Ruth’s desire to break free from the burdens of inherited responsibilities to craft her own life while managing a husband and daughter is heartfelt and powerful while dealing with the increasing dementia of her mother, Magalee.

Magalee abounds with verve, spice and wit, shifting effortlessly between the remembrance of past glories to dementia that will be painfully familiar for anyone who has ever experienced a family member or friend who has watched it slowly take their loved ones.

As the Grand Marshal, Christine Shepard wisps in and out of scenes like an apparition, embodying the celebration, pain and hope that is New Orleans through whispers, dance and poetry that blend seamlessly with the more grounded and grim realities of the show.

This all takes place while experiencing the chaos and fear that Hurricane Katrina brought to the city.

As someone who has spent a reasonable amount of time in NOLA, I was also impressed by Jason Ardizzone-West’s stage design. It’s simple and authentic, and the technical design becomes integral to the production.

I’ll not spoil any more of the plot. Between the efforts of the actors, sound-design, lighting sets, music and crew, it’s a powerful show that should be experienced in person.

shadow/land is the first installment in a 10-play cycle, each telling stories of those who experienced the Katrina diaspora by Dickerson-Despenza. Lilly Award winner Candis C. Jones directed the production, 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. Janelle Caso serves as production stage manager and Daniel Vaughn serves as stage manager.

shadow/land is playing at The Public Theater through Sunday, May 21st.
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Bob Cooley is a photojournalist, commercial photographer and communications strategist who lives in Greenwich Village, NYC. He’s spent over 30 years creating photography and stories for publications, including LIFE Magazine, Forbes, The Economist, Sports Illustrated, The Associated Press and many others. You can see more of Bob’s work at and new photography daily on Instagram @bobcooley