When attending Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s latest play shadow/land, audiences soon discover that the play is named after a real place: Shadowland, which was a jazz dance hall and the first air-conditioned hotel for Black people in New Orleans. What audiences will not know is that Shadowland was a real place founded by Dickerson-Despenza’s great-grand uncle. As the playwright shares, “Uncle Tony, who was actually my second cousin-once-removed, would tell me all these stories about it,” she says. “There was this one postcard that guests would receive that was on sale on eBay for hundreds of dollars. He had a screenshot of it and every time he would talk, I would say, ‘Can you show me any pictures?’ And he would say, ‘Lost them in the floods.’” It was Tony’s grandfather who founded the real-life Shadowland at 1921 Washington Avenue—a detail revealed in the play, currently playing an extended run at Off-Broadway’s The Public Theater through May 28.
Shadow/land is the first in a decalogy of works (not all of which are plays) that Dickerson-Despenza is writing about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. The play follows mother and daughter Magalee and Ruth, two adult Black women living in New Orleans who have inherited Shadowland, a jazz dance hall and hotel. (And like the real-life Shadowland, there is also a real-life Ruth and Magalee.) On their way to the Superdome where they plan to take shelter as Hurricane Katrina’s landfall looms, they stop by the bar to grab Magalee’s bag—only to become trapped by the storm. Over six days, mother and daughter try to survive as the flood waters rise around them and the streets become body-filled rivers. Shadow/land stars Lizan Mitchell as Magalee, Joniece Abbott-Pratt as Ruth, and Christine Shepard as Grand Marshal.
Though Chicago-born and raised, Dickerson-Despenza has deep roots in New Orleans through her father’s side—roots that can be traced as far back as the late 1700s. Compelled to keep digging into the real Shadowland, Dickerson-Despenza turned to social media, in particular a Facebook group called “Old New Orleans – ‘Black’ In the Day.” There’s a lot of community elders and people with roots in New Orleans, including people who witnessed Katrina firsthand, in the private group. “Uncle Tony was telling me how the Despenzas were something and they were a name. I was like, ‘Oh, he just wants you to feel good about our family line.’ I decided to just write in this group. I was like, ‘Let me see if people remember this place called Shadowland.’ And there were so many comments from people,” she reveals.
People began replying, remembering growing up across the streets from Shadowland, popping in to see singers and musicians, wondering who owns the property since the music hall burned down in the 1980s. Heartened by the outpouring of response, Dickerson-Despenza thought maybe she’d get to see photos of the place. But it wasn’t to be. “When I asked for pictures, everyone said, ‘Lost in the flood.’”
While there have been many times New Orleans has flooded, there’s one storm that continues to leave a mark on the Crescent City and its communities: Hurricane Katrina. “It was my desire to excavate this last cultural institution and the people who lived it. I don't want it to be lost. We’re still in the afterlife of Katrina,” tells Dickerson-Despenza. She dedicates the play to Ruth, Magalee, and Victor Despenza (an ancestor mentioned in the play). She also dedicates it to the almost 2,000 people who died during Katrina and in the floods, and the 25,000 refugees who were displaced to Houston’s Astrodome. The names of the victims cover the entrance to the theatre at The Public and parts of the set.
“There was so much talk about the loss of homes, which was great and important to talk about.” But there’s another conversation that the playwright wants people to discuss: What it means for Black communities to lose cultural institutions, and historical artifacts, like the photos of Shadowland. “I have an elder cousin who holds the deed to that land. So the land, as far as I know, is still in the family. I'm still very proud of that,” Dickerson-Despenza explains. “But, I am sad that the institution no longer exists, that very few people know about it.” In writing the play, Dickerson-Despenza is “trying to recover this piece of history.”
Before Katrina, Black Americans comprised about two-thirds of New Orleans’ population, and like in all Black communities, the importance of having and keeping cultural institutions is paramount. But in the play, Ruth wants to sell Shadowland to a developer. Meanwhile, Magalee believes Ruth should care more about protecting her inherited legacy. She reminds Ruth of how Ruth’s great-great-great-great-grandmother was taken from Saint-Dominigue and sold as a slave in New Orleans. She worked to someday “buy her own self” and be free from slavery; and then she bought the land and founded Shadowland, which has been passed down since.
What to do with Shadowland is only one of the tensions between Ruth and Magalee. They reflect on how they’ve faced racism differently, argue over Ruth’s sexuality, and disagree over exactly how to handle Magalee’s failing memory. Dickerson-Despenza's play and its characters have a political bent to them because it is intensely personal. She writes “people in place,” and politics inherently come with the lived experiences of her characters “in their bodies and in geographical space. Their lived experiences help them to develop and sustain politics around that experience,” she explains. “I think the best political creative writing is that which centers the people.”
In her work to center people and their lived experiences, Dickerson-Despenza honors her ancestors. “Writing is a spiritual practice for me,” she shares. “I have all kinds of family buried in New Orleans, some very close to my home. I am in steady conversation with my ancestors. There are things that I asked about like, ‘What do you all need?’ And that's a part of the creation.” Remember that great-great-great-great-grandmother Rosaline who Magalee says founded Shadowland? There’s a real Rosaline in Dickerson-Despenza’s family tree.
Quoting 20th century philosopher Walter Benjamin who said, “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was.’ It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger,” Dickerson-Despenza blends the facts of her family’s stories, and so many other stories, with fiction to try and capture the truth of the past.
Before shadow/land began its world premiere, The Public presented the world premiere of Dickerson-Despenza’s cullud wattah in fall 2021. The Afro-surrealist play follows five Black women from across three generations of a family all living through the Flint, Michigan water crisis. The play ends by reminding the audience that many homes in Flint still do not have clean water. Says Dickerson-Despenza, “The media moves so fast onto the next tragedy or next headline that we forget. I’ve had people literally say to me about Flint and about Katrina, ‘I didn’t know it was that bad.’”
The two plays, similar in the themes explored and the playwright’s experimentations across genre and medium, form the foundation which Dickerson-Despenza intends to expand upon in the Katrina decalogy. Originally billed as 10 plays, the series will now be 10 works, including museum work. One of the plays will explore what happened when emergency calls were re-routed to Baton Rouge after the Orleans Parish call center flooded—and the emotional labor involved in being on the other end of the line as people plead for help first, and to not die alone second. Another follows characters that are talked about, but never seen, in shadow/land three months after the play as the traumas from Katrina continue to haunt them.
Across all of it, Dickerson-Despenza’s guiding hope for herself as an artist is to be a “delicate sculptor of horror,” a moniker given to Harlem Renaissance Black female sculptor Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller. “Not for sensationalism’s sake,” she clarifies, “but to really bring certain things to the forefront of our cultural memory so that we remember ourselves and each other in that process.” It’s fitting, then, that on the back wall of the shadow/land set is a photo of the real Ruth and Magalee in formal attire, taken in the ballroom of Shadowland. “We added a picture of my Uncle Tony that I took as the last photo I took of him before he passed,” Dickerson-Despenza shares. It’s a tribute to the ancestors of shadow/land, to make sure they are not forgotten.
Check out photos from shadow/land at The Public below.