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Theater review by Helen Shaw
We never learn the name of the '60s Texas town in William Jackson Harper’s terrific drama Travisville, yet it’s clear that Harper knows the place well. The title refers to a proposed urban development that will destroy a black neighborhood, and Harper depicts the disrupted planning presentation, the deacons’ breakfast meetings and the clashes over protests as though he’d been to each of them, eavesdropping from the next rooms. Harper was one of New York’s best stage performers before he became a TV star on The Good Place, but Travisville is his first work as playwright. It’s no surprise that a fine actor would write fine dialogue, or that he has a precise touch for characterization. What’s most exciting is how well he orchestrates the pressures of event and argument: His whole created world breathes.
That world is about to catch on fire. The Civil Rights Act has just been passed, and the age of racist terror should be in the past. But the whites want Travisville, and they don’t want black residents to tell them no. (As someone says: "“Never play with a cracker’s money.”) The mayor (Denny Dale Bess) wants to the town to stay calm, and he’s accustomed to leaning on a local association of black pastors in such moments. But the accommodationist Elder Hearst (a stupendous Brian D. Coats) is dying, and his successor, Minister Fletcher (Bjorn DuPaty), has questions about why concerns about “lawlessness” seem to apply only to black people. A few brave citizens—such as the alcoholic deacon Gunn (Nathan James) and the young organizer Zeke Phillips (Sheldon Best)—start to struggle with Hearst for Fletcher’s soul. It’s a drama of conscience, with angels on both of the minister's shoulders.
Harper writes scenes to slightly overlap, and director Steve H. Broadnax III handles this with clarity and force; he uses the tiny stage at Ensemble Studio Theatre to good effect, and his cast is tremendous. There is an occasional fly in the ointment: While the men grapple with multifaceted impulses, the female characters take the emotional line, each one delivering a speech that’s some variation on stating her love for her husband. Despite powerhouse performances, including two by Stori Ayers, the women seem a bit flat in comparison to the men. But what men! Each of the four main figures is complex enough to be the hero of a play, which is a good sign for Harper's career as a writer. If he can cram so many into one play, he can surely spare one for the next.
Ensemble Studio Theatre (Off Broadway). By William Jackson Harper. Directed by Steve H. Broadnax III. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2 hours. One intermission.