Playwright Marcus Gardley is no stranger to the Mississippi. I remember sitting with him on the river’s banks in the Twin Cities three years ago, when he was amazed how the gently flowing water almost couldn’t be heard. In his play …and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi, recently produced by the Cutting Ball in San Francisco, the Mississippi is personified as a grand ‘dam, “her dress wide as all get out of town.” In his current work On the Levee, a play with music at LCT3 this summer, Gardley shows the river at its most “troubled and dangerous,” responsible for the 1927 flood that destroyed Greenville, Mississippi.
Directed by Lear deBessonet, and conceived post-Katrina, the piece grew out of an interest in the Kern and Hammerstein 1927 musical Show Boat, which was provocatively set on the same levee where the flood took place. On the Levee features music and lyrics by Todd Almond, whose soundscape organically inhabits the juke joints and the genteel soirees on either side of the racial divide, and swells with the tragic aftermath of the river’s flood. The indelible silhouette artwork of Kara Walker conjures the setting of the Delta, at a time when slavery was a recent memory.
Gardley, who grew up the son of a minister in Oakland, California, is currently living in Brooklyn when he’s not in Amherst, Massachusetts, as a professor of playwriting and African-American studies at UMass. His highly anticipated new work about church bombings in the South, Every Tongue Confess, will premiere in November at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.. It’s a very good year for the young playwright, whose ear for language and sense of rhythm wash his theatrical works with poetry and music.
KATHRYN WALAT (RAIL): Tell me about the genesis of On the Levee.
MARCUS GARDLEY: Lear grew up in the same town that my mother did: Baton Rouge, Louisiana. That’s what initially got me interested in collaborating with her. When she came to me with her idea for this project, I thought: How did I not know about what is considered the worst natural disaster in American history? It’s what got Herbert Hoover elected, and started the first major migration of African Americans from Mississippi to Chicago. But for some reason, as a populace, we forgot about this event.
An excerpt from On the Levee:
Mississippi movin like he mad at somebody.
Course he mad. You would be too if a handful of men built a levee to keep back land that belong to you. Don’t you know the story of how this ville came to be green?
Nawl and don’t want to hear it. I’m plum tired of your tall tales.
Who says my tales are tall!? They bite-size. They come out my mouth so as to fit in your ear.
Then tell it! Sho rather hear a tall tale than listen to ya mouth chew the bit.
Let me rest a spell then. I gots to sit to tell this one cause its old. Old tales take a lot out of the body. They come from deep places—
Would you just tell it! Bout time you get done I’ll be old as you.
Tough, can’t rush history! History takes time! Four generations back, Mississippi used to spread his arm cross all this land. He’d wet it in spring, nurse it in summer and set it free in fall. And this land, this Greenville was his baby girl. She spent her warmest days rockin in her father’s wet arms and that was story till the Percy’s came […] Forty days and nights it’s rained and rained hard. Thems Mississippi’s tears: he still weepin for the arms of his daughter. And soon he will rise on a tide of them tears to embrace this land. You heed my words Joe. ‘Fore long there will be flood.
RAIL: I love how the humor and language of your characters give us a sense of the world of the play. How did you get inside this time and place?
GARDLEY: Because the piece initially was going to be an adaptation of Show Boat, quite a few of the characters are from that musical, and I just altered the names. But I didn’t like the fact that they seemed to be one-dimensional. I’m a firm believer that if you look at somebody on the surface, they are a stereotype. But what’s underneath it?
A few of the other characters are from history. James Gooden, who is from the period and actually was murdered [as in the play], was just another man in Greenville. But after his death there was not a dry eye in the whole town: he was their son, he was their brother, he was their husband. His death made the people realize in a very profound way that their lives were valued, and that’s what started the migration to Chicago.
RAIL: You give these musical and historical figures real flesh and blood.
GARDLEY: I really love actors and always try to give them as much meat as possible to play. To me, each character represents a group of people, and through the breadth of the story, you really get the sense of the town. And that’s one thing I think we’ve accomplished, with only a cast of 12 actors. Lear is really amazing, with the way that she’s staged it, you really feel like these are thousands of people.
RAIL: Talk about some of the parallels between this flood and Katrina.
GARDLEY: The most obvious parallel is that the white people and the wealthy people got out. There were, as you know, thousands of people trapped in the Superdome, and here they’re all trapped on the levee. Another major parallel was that it became political. The politicians were using the event to further their careers. Post-Katrina, things in New Orleans still haven’t been fixed, and post-flood in Greenville, the town was destroyed. To this day, the economy there is gone.
RAIL: How does the music work with the piece, especially because your language has such a rhythm of its own?
GARDLEY: Early on, one of the things we were frightened of was that because the language is so musical, with the music, it would be sensory overload. What the composer Todd Almond did, which was really smart, is that he created a contrast. So the language can be poetic, while his music is stark and dissonant and aggressive. And the music isn’t presented in a typical musical-theater way. What’s really powerful is the way that it comes out of the characters, almost as if they can’t help it.
RAIL: What’s your favorite moment in the production?
GARDLEY: There’s a scene where Rev. Booker and his daughter Puddin are on the roof of the Church while the water rises. My main goal with the play—and this is always in my work, but I’ve really tried to hone it with this piece—is you have comedy and then tragedy right next to each other.
The Reverend and his daughter are stuck and they could die. But the way that the actor approaches the moment, the Reverend’s crying and his daughter’s trying to comfort him, and it’s comedic. And then there’s also the fact that the Reverend is a shyster—he stole from the people—but he’s also their hero in a lot of ways.
RAIL: How does this piece connect to your play …and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi?
GARDLEY: What creeps into all my work is the Bible. There’s the spirituality and myth and folklore, and then there’s history, which is always in dialogue with the present. But in this play, there’s also the question: How did the people feel? This flood must have caused people to question their faith.
But Nature balances. And it’s hubris to think that you can build a levee and keep the river out. You can never keep the water out. You couldn’t keep it out in Katrina, and what was that, 2005? In Delta culture, the saying goes: Fear God, fear the river. There’s no distinction between one and the other. In Greenville, they forgot to fear the river.
LCT3’s production of On the Levee (play by Marcus Gardley, music and lyrics by Todd Almond) runs through July 10 at the Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd St., 2nd Floor. For more information, please visit lct.org/showMain.htm?id=194.
KATHRYN WALAT is a playwright who currently splits her time between New York and Savannah. She's working on a commission for MCC Theater, called See Bat Fly.