Eighty-three years before Hurricane Katrina washed away much of New Orleans — where reparations are yet incomplete — the 1927 flood in Mississippi and Louisiana caused destruction so devastating it hastened the rise of Governor Huey Long and the election of President Herbert Hoover on restoration promises that were never kept.
That act of nature, with its biblical-dimension rains, is the subject of Marcus Gardley’s new play,
On the Levee, now being presented by LCT3 at the Duke on 42nd Street. The three-act piece, conceived and directed with sensitive urgency by Lear deBessonet, is officially described as “a play with music.” But it is better called a compact historical pageant — and it is an ultimately satisfying, deeply disturbing one.
In a chain of passionately acted vignettes, Gardley focuses on cotton-plantation owner and former Senator LeRoy Percy (Michael Siberry), and his son, World War I hero and poet Will Percy (Seth Numrich). The decisions they made affected a population of displaced blacks who were told they’d be evacuated, but who were denied removal for political reasons involving the cotton crop future. (With them gone, who would work the fields?) This back-handed treatment ultimately resulted in the Great Migration to the North — a response to betrayal by the white community.
While Todd Almond intermittently accompanies the action with blues and gospel riffs and phrases that never quite develop into full-fledged songs, Gardley sketches in the conflicted relationships between domineering Senator Percy and fortitude-challenged Will, their retainers Joe Gooden (Dion Graham) and Queen Black (Harriet D. Foy), and several Greenville, Mississippi residents, who are meant to stand in for the thousands caught up in the event. (The large cast includes Amari Cheatom, Brian D. Coats, Chuck Cooper, Maria Couch, April Matthis, Jacob Ming-Trent, Stephen Plunkett, and Shelley Thomas.)
One of the solemn beauties of this production is the contribution made by the projections of the acclaimed artist Kara Walker, who specializes in illustrating the African-American experience through simultaneously jaunty and corrosive silhouette tableaux. For On the Levee, she provides, on an upstage screen, silhouetted bunraku-like figures manipulated by sticks. Often, they represent the only instances of choreography in this musical piece.
Because these representations are on view well before the action begins, the jittery puppets also foreshadow the undercurrents of cartoon-like behavior the play’s characters display. As Gardley fills in sequences reported in accounts at the time — such as a man who was shot for refusing to work a double shift — he provides his handful of hopelessly entangled and battling people with sufficient traits to make them believable, but not fully fleshed out.
On the other hand, Gardley telegraphs the notion that Senator Percy — deteriorating into a drunk bereft of the servants on whom he depended (perhaps for more than carrying drinks and bussing meals) — is really an embodiment of the obsolescing white ruling-class. And his take on Will Percy as a tragically-flawed poet in the Tennessee Williams weak pretty-boy tradition may also be questionable, since the real William Alexander Percy went on to be held in great respect, in large part thanks to his memoir of the period, Lanterns on the Levee.
Nevertheless, On the Levee, vividly recalls a time in the United States past that isn’t really past and is definitely worth remembering.