The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, the worst in U.S. history, drowned more than a million acres of land, killed several hundred people—while displacing hundreds of thousands more—and launched an unprecedented northward migration of African-Americans. But, says director Lear deBessonet, “no one has heard of it. It’s not on the radar at all—in the most haunting way. It’s like imagining in 80 years that no one knows what 9/11 was.”
Starting June 14, On the Levee—a collaboration, based on that natural disaster, between deBessonet, playwright Marcus Gardley, composer Todd Almond, and the acclaimed visual artist Kara Walker—will begin performances at the Duke on 42nd Street. Produced by Lincoln Center’s LCT3, the show follows the flood’s effect on Greenville, Mississippi, and twins the experiences of two sets of fathers and sons, one white and prominent and drawn from history, the other African-American and working-class and largely fictional.
You’d hardly know that deBessonet hails from the region her play describes. From her chic haircut to her hipster clogs, she looks every inch a New Yorker. Only the occasional lengthened vowel and a decidedly un-Gothamish friendliness betray her Baton Rouge origins. Though the 29-year-old director grew up not far from Greenville and has relatives who survived the flood, she knew nothing of it until she heard it mentioned in Spike Lee’s Hurricane Katrina documentary, When the Levees Broke. “That led to this frenzied ravenous search to know more about it,” she says.
In her research, deBessonet noted an odd detail: The finale of the musical Showboat, which opened in 1927, is set on the Greenville levee. Just six months earlier, steamboats had refused to rescue the 5,000 African-Americans stranded there, and the levee had transformed into a refugee camp—some authors call it a slave camp. “This is like a huge Broadway musical opening right after Katrina, set in the Superdome,” she says, “with people dancing around.”
DeBessonet—who has previously directed a take on Oliver! that reflected child sex-trafficking, and a Don Quixote staged by both professional actors and vagrants—originally imagined producing a version of Showboat that interwove the story of the flood. But the complexity of securing the rights to that piece and an initial workshop convinced her that the Greenville story was the one that most needed telling. With her artistic team, she has developed an intense, lyrical script enlivened by songs derived from the musical forms of the day—blues, field hollers, spirituals—performed by a 12-member cast.
For the past several years, all of deBessonet’s work has had an explicit social-justice agenda, and On the Levee, with its exploration of race and class and Walker’s troubling visuals, should prove no exception. DeBessonet isn’t opposed to theater that merely entertains, depending on the context in which it’s presented. She describes that recent Don Quixote, staged in Philadelphia and featuring 35 homeless men and women in its cast, and a five-actor production of My Fair Lady, which toured shelters and prisons in St. Paul, as more or less “straight-up fun,” because “the political act is in people gathering to receive the story at all.” But for shows produced in a traditional manner and attracting more typical audiences, she wants the content of the play to raise some difficult questions for spectators. Says deBessonet: “I want them to ask themselves and each other why wasn’t this flood remembered—and what else have we forgotten.”