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In the 1927 musical Show Boat, a Mississippi riverboat leaves one doomed passenger behind, condemned for being half black. In director Lear deBessonet’s LCT3 show, On the Levee, set the same year Show Boat premiered, riverboats abandon the entire black population of Greenville, Mississippi, stranding thousands atop the burst levees of their flood-ravaged town. DeBessonet and playwright Marcus Gardley chronicle Greenville’s devastating flood in interlocking fables of grief and survival. Exposition often drowns out subtlety, but the story’s eerie resonance with Hurricane Katrina keeps On the Levee chugging along.
Gardley’s Greenville is a brittle community, chaos constantly threatening to breach carefully constructed social boundaries. White plantation owners gossip and flirt, while black laborers frantically reinforce leaking levees. When the river finally overflows, malevolent landlord LeRoy Percy (Michael Siberry) and his wishy-washy son, Will (Seth Numrich), exert control—promising the marooned sharecroppers imminent rescue, but trapping them in Greenville to grow next season’s crops. Among the stranded, kindly Joe Gooden (Dion Graham) struggles for order, as his hormonal son, James (Amari Cheatom), seduces every damsel around.
Bluntly cataloging the disaster and the human crimes that followed, Gardley exposes the ineffectualness of Greenville’s white would-be saviors, and religion’s bankruptcy in the face of communal calamity. Todd Almond’s mournful, blues-inflected tunes underscore the escalating trauma. But On the Levee is also choked with romantic subplots and starry-eyed confessions—psychological exclamations gush forth at every turn, leaving the audience less room to sift the evidence ourselves.
Luckily, artist Kara Walker’s haunting videos offer another way to recollect catastrophe. In one preshow sequence, grimacing shadow puppets cavort raucously, silhouetted before a frilly, Show Boat–style riverboat. Iconic Southern imagery merges, onscreen, with grotesque caricature—leaving us to ponder both the histories we’ve collectively washed away and the inevitable gaps in comprehension when we try to dredge them up.