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Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors

TravisvilleShawn Randall, Sheldon Best and Lynnette R. Freeman in Travisville. Photo by Jeremy Daniel .

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors

A young college graduate from Atlanta, Zeke Phillips (Sheldon Best), sits down at a white lunch counter and is promptly arrested, stirring up an undercurrent of upheaval in one 1960's Texas town. Opening at Ensemble Studio Theater, Travisville, is a tinderbox of tension with crackling dialogue, a sizable cast of well-developed characters and under Steve H. Broadnax II's smooth direction, the characters are alive with believability and scenes flow. 

Travisville, the first play by actor William Jackson Harper, speaks of imminent domain, the haves and the have-nots, those who order and those who follow orders.  While the Travisville Project is an ambitious economic development plan, an all-inclusive town mall, described as a fancy "indoor/outdoor concept shopping district," it is also threatening and pulling apart neighborhoods.  Planned by the white governing business leaders, it will displace a low-mark black area, a neighborhood called "Fannin Gardens," offering the homeowners a modest price to move out and leave behind their sense of security, friends, schools and church.

Although the Voting Rights Act has been passed, it has not quite taken root in most small towns and now, with the appearance of the Atlanta agitator, everyone is confused and angered by what they are forced to give up. For help, these folks have always turned to the alliance of ministers who usually manages to communicate with the town leaders to keep peace.  However, now the alliance is itself in a flux since its leader is gravely ill. 

Now comes the activist from Atlanta bringing in his ideas of CORE.  While Zeke is a clean-cut young man with passionate beliefs. He tries to influence the different viewpoints of the townspeople and the black alliance.  He wants change now.  

Mayor Ainsley Gillette (Denny Dale Bess, playing two white leadership roles, both with similar demeanor), tries to keep peace in the town.  He has formed a communication talking things out with the alliance members, but in these high-strung times, his patience is crumbling, "You got your Negro leaders, using the whip when they oughta be using the carrot. Tends to rub certain people the wrong way." 

Gunn (Nathan James), an alcoholic deacon and part of the alliance of ministers, rallies to point out, "But if all y’all wanna do is roll over, why are we here? What is the point of this alliance at all? Because, y’all, look, if we can rally behind Zeke? We can make these white folk act right." 

Leading the alliance is Elder Alden Hearst (Brian D. Coats from Jitney), who is dying yet evokes a fierce Biblical devotion to his community as well acknowledging his own pride and even his failings.  He has chosen as his successor Ora Fletcher (Bjorn DuPaty), dedicated to his followers and hoping to calm the heightened emotions of the community while moving beyond the current state of affairs.  DuPaty reveals Fletcher's naive instincts and his respect for Elder Hearst, often contradicting his desire for justice.   

One of the two women in the play, Stori Ayers (Pipeline), brings a supportive warmth to her role as Fletcher's wife, Bethany.  She also takes the part of another houseowner, LaVerne.  Lynnette R. Freeman captures the depth and passion of Georgia Dawson, victim of the conflict.  As her husband, Shawn Randall (Orthell Dawson) is a mechanic who stands for his rights and his family and they all suffer. 

Milagros Ponce de León designed a basic set with few props that are smoothly arranged and reorganized over the small stage to indicate various spaces.  Shane Rettig adds sounds of rain and street fighting, and setting the mid-century era, he provides a soundtrack of bebop. Lighting design by Adam Honoré highlight the various locations and Suzanne Chesney dressed the ministers and the housewives in period perfect costumes.

The play ends where it should, leading to a road of hope that is known to stumble and stall over the coming years.  Harper's Travisville is impressive, a compelling piece that presents potent questions tackled by multilayered decent characters who present viewpoints that indicate the problems of coming to conclusions.

Ensemble Studio Theatre
510 - West 52 Street, New York, NY
Previews: Oct. 3, 2018. Opening: Oct. 8, 2018. Closing: Oct. 28, 2018
Manhattan Theatre Club Link
Running time: Two hours.  One intermission.
Cast: Stori Ayers, Sheldon Best (Sugar in Our Wounds), Denny Dale Bess (Year of the Rooster), Brian D. Coats, Bjorn Dupaty (Office Hours), Lynnette R. Freeman (Luz), Nathan James (Qantico), Ivan Moore (Luke Cage), and Shawn Randall (Fish Men).
Playwright: William Jackson Harper
Directed: Steve H. Broadnax III

Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors
October 2018