These scenes are framed by interjections from a griot, or traditional Black storyteller. This character, whom Dickerson-Despenza added for the audio version, speaks even more lushly than the others, a choice that may seem like linguistic icing or overkill depending on your tolerance for lines like “stars bedazzle a sprained black sky as the City untangles its raw limbs.”
Still, as delivered by the New Orleans poet Sunni Patterson, the largeness of the wording comes to seem like the precise correlative for the largeness of the disaster.
The balance of naturalism and otherworldliness is more complicated for the other two actors, but just as successfully achieved. As Magalee, Lizan Mitchell is wonderfully salty in her maternal mode and heartbreakingly childlike in her delusions. And as Ruth, Michelle Wilson (a star of “Sweat” at the Public and on Broadway) manages to create a fully rounded human character — with a husband, a lover, and a daughter to think of — while also serving as the play’s eyewitness to the terrible things happening outside the window.
If that’s too much for a 70-minute play to wrangle, the problem is a better one for a playwright to take on than too little. In “[hieroglyph],” the second installment in Dickerson-Despenza’s Katrina Cycle — which I saw last month, in a filmed production from the San Francisco Playhouse and the Lorraine Hansberry Theater — the mechanism by which mere events were turned into drama was also noticeably clunky. Its characters, including a 13-year-old girl and her father, survivors of Katrina who wind up in Chicago with secrets to unpack, often seem to be serving the author’s needs instead of their own.
There are times when “shadow/land” suffers from the same condition, one sign of which is the tendency of Ruth and Magalee to provide back story by telling each other (and thus us) things they would both already know.
But this play is saved — and, more than that, lifted — by its tragic vision. The production also makes an enormous difference. Delfeayo Marsalis’s haunting music, bent and blurred through memory and, thanks to Palmer Heffernan’s immersive sound design, often morphing into the sound of the storm itself, helps us understand that what’s at stake is not just a building but an entire cultural history.
That’s a big project, even before you multiply it by 10. Nor are the aftereffects of Katrina the limit of Dickerson-Despenza’s current theatrical interests. Her play “cullud wattah,” set against the backdrop of the Flint water crisis, last week won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for playwriting; the Public, which originally planned to produce it last summer, hopes to try again as soon as it is safe to do so.
An astonishing start for a 29-year-old writer. Though Dickerson-Despenza says she does not consider herself primarily a theater artist but a “cultural worker” making space for Black women, she may, like her “shadow/land” characters, find that the emergencies of our day have a different fate in mind for her.
Available at publictheater.org and on major podcast platforms.