Travisville is a good play. An extraordinarily good play. The acting is stellar. The script is insightful. The direction is spot on. The production values are top notch. Travisville must be seen in this incarnation and in any other production that will inevitably come to be. Presented by the legendary Ensemble Studio Theatre for its well deserved fiftieth anniversary season, and in conjunction with the equally respected Radio Drama Network, this is a show that oozes class and distinction from the moment the lights hit the stage.
Based on actual events brilliantly imagined and dramatized by playwright William Jackson Harper, Travisville tells the story of a small Texas town learning to find itself shortly after the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. At the time Texas was a state that prided itself on the veneer of racial civility they seemed to maintain but beneath that was a growing rot of prejudice and inhumanity that marked the times. Plans for construction have come to this little town and an expansion is in the works. A new commercial district called Travisville is going to be built on prime land. The negros on that land, all of whom have survived generations to establish and maintain their homes, are to be relocated and the town council will not take no for an answer. This two hour drama, including a fifteen minute intermission, focuses on the struggles of the black ministers that represent their people, the white mayor that represents his people, and the families that are struggling to either keep their homes and livelihoods or stand up for a cause and possibly lose their lives.
At the center of the many attributes that makes Travisville work so sublimely is the truly gifted ensemble cast. They are a unified force and there is not one weak link in the chain. Director Steve H. Broadnax III masterfully and seamlessly helms a cast where half the company plays multiple rolls. They transition imperceptibly from one character to the next giving them the ability to create an entire town in conflict. Everyone is conflicted. Everyone is torn. The struggles are genuinely portrayed by all concerned. Leading the pack is Brian D. Coats as the senior statesman and outgoing Elder Alden Hearst. His performance is the rock on which all the others stand. No one in town is a true villain, even Mayor Gillette, played with chilling restraint by Denny Dale Bess, tries his best to keep everything on an even keel even as everything starts to unwind.
Having heard of the conflict, Zeke Philips, a young idealistic activist, has arrived in town. This upstart is doing his level best to convince the homeowners that resistance is the only way for them to gain respect and keep what is theirs. In this role Sheldon Best delivers the fire in firebrand. Pastors Gunn and Fletcher, who are not only wrestling over how to deal with the rising tensions, they’re also fighting tensions between them over who deserves to succeed Pastor Hearst. Actors Nathan James and Bjorn DuPaty are each magnetic in their portrayals. In this male dominated world Lynnette Freeman’s heartfelt and soul searching performance as Georgia Dawson, the wife of the town’s mechanic, helps to illustrate the costs that can accrue when passions ignite and civility is abandoned.
Everything about the look and feel of the world of Travisville raises to the level of the source material and the performers work. Set designer Milagros Ponce de Leon not only creates a beautifully simple single multi use space, which becomes town hall, church, minister’s home, mayor’s office and so on, she also extends the wings on either side of the simply framed cherry wood box to either side of the audience. Covered with facades replicating the siding of the very homes the townsfolk are trying to protect the designer puts the audience at the center of the action and the heart of the matter at all times.
From the slowly rolling storm that begins the play lighting designer Adam Honore and sound designer Shane Rettig both set the tone for not only what’s to come they also work exceedingly well together to set the moods for each subsequent scene that follows. Costume designer Suzanne Chesney’s work completes the look of Travisville with costumes that bring the characters to life beautifully. All of these artists working together give the overall production a cinematic feel that elevates the production even further.
Travisville is the complete theatrical package of compelling theatre and powerful message. It speaks to you in a very real, clear, and concise voice that deserves to be heard. It’s a drama that speaks in truths that echo through time from a past that reminds us of where we’ve come from to a future that shows us just how much we have yet to learn. Theatre of this caliber needs to be produced and seen as often as possible.
Edward Medina is an active member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) and the Drama Desk. He welcomes comments at EdwardMedinaAuthor@gmail.com.
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