Ensemble Studio Theatre has long been a company that nurtures new plays, but the author of its current offering, Travisville, has never had one staged before. Nevertheless, in his debut, William Jackson Harper, an actor who appeared on Broadway in All the Way, about Lyndon Baines Johnson’s attempt to pass the Civil Rights Act, has written a thrilling and important drama so rich in detail and nuance that it could have come from a seasoned writer. Tackling the same legislation as his own starting point, Harper sifts through the granular, day-to-day effects of it, the promise vs. the reality. The story he tells is all the more forceful thanks to the impeccable cast that embodies his humane characters.
Co-produced by Radio Drama Network, Travisville takes its name from a section of Dallas (though it’s unnamed in the play), where an urban development project has targeted a largely black section of town. It will displace the residents, and those who profit will be the white developers. It’s an old problem that blacks have had to face repeatedly, and an element of August Wilson’s Jitney, too. What emerges under the direction of Steve H. Broadnax III, however, is the sense of stifling oppression. Although the Civil Rights Act has just been passed, the white mayor, Ainsley Gillette (Denny Dale Bess), urges a calm to let attitudes change gradually. Going along is Brian D. Coats’s elder Alden Hurst, a dying but still vital leader of the city’s black congregations. Gillette has persuaded Hurst to agree to the razing of Travisville as a boon to the community, white and black.
Two newcomers threaten to upset the established order, however. One is Ora Fletcher (Bjorn DuPaty), a young minister Hurst is grooming as his successor. Fletcher, married to a sympathetic and pregnant wife (a warm and lighthearted Stori Ayers). Fletcher hasn’t got his footing in local politics yet, but as he learns how it operates, the audience does too.
The second person upsetting the apple cart is Zeke Phillips (Sheldon Best), a young organizer of sit-ins and an activist, but one not immune to logic and discussion. He has sparked a local crisis by leading a sit-in at a lunch counter that resulted in “rednecks” getting into a fight with him, and three arrests. Gillette is upset about it, although another minister, Nathan James’s D.L. Gunn, is taking a firmer stand with the mayor than Hurst:
Gunn: It’s not exactly against the law for a Negro to sit a lunch counter anymore. It just sounds like a fight to me.
Gillette: Right. But…come on.
Gunn: …Come on what?
Gillette: This is gonna take some time. This can’t…this won’t just happen overnight.
Gunn: Of course. However, to be fair, this hasn’t been overnight.
As the play, co-produced by Radio Theatre Network, unfolds, Zeke urges black residents to stand up for their rights and not accept low-balling offers for their homes, which the city plans to seize by eminent domain. Many blacks, fearful of ending up with nothing, balk at Zeke’s proposal, but Shawn Randall’s Orthell Dawson sees the point. His wife, Georgia, though, isn’t keen on fighting, and Lynnette R. Freeman, in a wrenching speech, details why:
I don’t need this. I keep my mouth shut all day. Picking up after these white folk, spending time with their kids while mine have to go Sister Franklin’s. … Then, on the off day I get to bring my babies to work, they still have to come after the little white kids I’m being paid to raise. Eat after they eat. Play with stuff when they done.
Most of the actors double in roles, as black ministers, homeowners, and church folk. Canny costume designer Suzanne Chesney provides charcoal suits for the middle-class blacks and a beige suit for the mayor; when he wears gray, it’s still lighter than the grays of the black characters. And Chesney gives Ayers as a slightly comic church lady an appropriately bright hat for worship.
The conflict between Hurst on the one side and Fletcher, Gunn, and Phillips on the other plays out deftly in Harper’s hands. “We’re not a monolith, young man,” Fletcher tells Phillips at one point. Nor is Gillette a stereotype; he may feel obliged to see the big picture, but he’s aware that his actions will hurt the black population, and Harper allows some sympathy for the delicate balancing act he has. All in all, Travisville is a powerful drama from an exciting new voice in the theater.
The Ensemble Studio Theatre and Radio Drama Network production of Travisville runs through Oct. 28 at Ensemble Studio Theatre (545 W. 52nd St., almost at 11th Avenue). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Oct. 22 and 25–27 and at 5 p.m. Oct. 28; there is also a matinee at 2 p.m. Oct. 27. For tickets and information, visit ensemblestudiotheatre.org.