How to Live Among What Is Dead

“Octavia Butler teaches us,” explains Black playwright Ericka Dickerson-Despenza, “…that we have two options in Apocalypse: adapt or die.”

Hurricane Katrina rumbles, roars, and ultimately rages in the background. Meanwhile, Magalee “Maggie” Boudreaux Despenza resists her daughter’s encouragement to sell the family business, Shadowland, to developers. Shadowland holds the distinction of being the first air-conditioned hotel for Black people in New Orleans, and it doubles as a nightclub and restaurant. Maggie, who has begun to suffer from dementia, wants to hold onto the business that has been in their family for generations. Due to her mother’s illness, Ruth must take on additional professional and familial responsibilities. Ruth’s care work leaves little room for her personal crossroads: the question of whether she should remain in her safe heterosexual marriage or pursue a life of greater abundance that includes her lesbian lover, Frankie. The women must decide to hold tight or let go. Katrina forces a reckoning.

A Black, queer, feminist poet-playwright from Chicago, IL, Erika Dickerson-Despenza wrote Shadow/land as part of her 10-play Katrina Cycle. Thus far, Shadow/land is the only play from the cycle that has been produced as an audio play. These plays explore the Katrina diaspora, tracing the ripples of displacement that transform the lives of the characters and the new spaces they inhabit. Dickerson-Despenza—a winner of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize—calls herself a “cultural-memory worker,” naming the expansiveness of her artistic and political project and the tradition from which she draws.

This designation aligns Dickerson-Despenza with other Black women writers laying claim to pasts that have often claimed them. In “The Site of Memory,” Toni Morrison describes the challenge of depicting the horrors of slavery as a black woman informed by, but often overlooked in the discussion of, this peculiar institution. Morrison’s writing mines individual and shared recollections to gain partial access to the intimate and interior details of Black life and uses imagination to fill the remaining gaps. In the theater, imagination materializes through gestures, set designs, and physical actions. The theme of holding tight or letting go, for instance, becomes embodied through a grasp, embrace, or release. Dickerson-Despenza’s memory work shifts the shape of people and places to present the vitality of Blackness in a perpetual storm of anti-Black racism, or what Christina Sharpe calls “the weather.”

To hold onto the past and not be held by it, Black people have long created practices of communing with the dead, of learning to live in a land filled with shadows but not ghosted by the past. This is why Shadow/land depicts more than toppled trees and Black death. In fact, Dickerson-Despenza’s art reprises practices for living among what’s dead.

To accompany the audio play of Shadow/land, I produced three podcast episodes for a series titled The Clearing. In the third episode, Dickerson-Despenza explains, “Octavia Butler teaches us … that we have two options in Apocalypse: adapt or die.” She continues: “I don’t know a moment in time that wasn’t apocalyptic for Black people, particularly Black women, and nonbinary folks. … How do we adapt in this moment? And how do we really see the moment as an opportunity for something else?”

In Shadow/land, Katrina untethers the characters from the deathly grip of relations that no longer serve them. The physical disruption of the storm enacts the physical violence of clearing a space. The Clearing also invokes a clearing: an open site for innovation and exploration. Inspired by clearings such as New Orleans’s Congo Square or the forest clearing described in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the podcast brought together artists and scholars to reflect on environmental justice, intergenerational world-making, and survival as depicted in Shadow/land.

The play anthropomorphizes the storm and genders it, with the injunction to “say her name.” Casting Katrina as a vengeful woman gives the storm an ethical quality, with destruction considered a step toward repair. In The Clearing, Dickerson-Despenza references Mary Hooks, who from 2015 to 2020 codirected the LGBTQ liberation organization Southerners on New Ground (SONG). “Hooks … gave us the mandate, right? The mandate for Black people in this time is to avenge the suffering of our ancestors, to earn the respect of future generations, and to be willing to be transformed in the service of the work.”


Alison Carey and Amrita Ramanan on Theater and...

By Daniel Pollack-Pelzner et al.

The persistent onslaught of anti-Blackness produces a desire for preservation, for remembering, to simply hold onto what has kept you safe in times of trouble. But holding on can be a life preserver, or it can be an anchor that prevents progress. Katrina affirmed that living while Black means living without a state-sponsored safety net. Subsequent catastrophes, including the pandemic, clarify the wastefulness of looking for ways of living in systems and structures bound by death.

In Shadow/land, during a discussion of whether the family should sell or keep the business, Maggie recounts how they came to own the land. With Ruth’s assistance, Maggie describes the family building Shadowland brick by brick, her ancestor Celestine streaking the door with indigo from plants that stained her blistered hands. The color is transferred from the plantation to Celestine’s hands to the doorway of Shadowland, integrating Celestine’s physical body into the built environment.

These hands stained a purplish blue recall an iconic image from Julie Dash’s 1991 film Daughters of the Dust, which also features women working with indigo plants. In the film, the stained hand becomes a contact zone impressed with evidence of human porosity, as scholar Tiffany Lethabo King observes.1 The idea of the permeability of Black life recurs in Shadow/land when Ruth realizes that the woman with blue hands has returned, flooding the present with the past.

Blue handprints canvas the walls of the hotel, as an ancestral presence imprints the space and bends time. This presence imbues the space with the refuge Celestine sought, the refuge she leaves for generations to come. Shadow/land is a counter-archive filled with survival repertoires; these do not forestall, but do endure, the flood.


In Search of Survival Tactics

As an audio play, Shadow/land presents the sounds of Katrina (rain, wind gusts, sirens) and New Orleans jazz. This layering of sound, with manmade and natural sonic landscapes building upon one another, queues the ear to listen for one when hearing the other. The sounds unearth a place obscured in the visual record, the haunting images and footage, of Katrina.

Echoing sounds to reframe images, Shadow/land offers an ecology rooted in memory. Providing a more fulsome rendering than would be possible had it only focused on devastation, Shadow/land requires that the audience listen for lower frequencies, which capture Black people’s practices of sustainability in dark times.

Shadow/land opens with Def poet and New Orleans native Sunni Patterson’s rhythmic delivery coaxing the listener into the story. Grammy award-winning musician Delfeayo Marsalis’s composition dances alongside Patterson’s words. Marsalis, a trombonist and record producer, draws inspiration from New Orleans jazz traditions. The sound of New Orleans seeps into listeners’ ears, transporting audiences from their living rooms to the birthplace of jazz. On the outskirts of town is a clearing called Congo Square, which served as a contact zone, bringing together African, Indigenous, and European traditions.

Since the 19th century, Congo Square functioned as an unofficial public marketplace, becoming a site for expression, activities, and interactions prohibited within the institution of slavery. In the Square, enslaved Africans, free people of color, and Native Americans could mingle, sell goods, and produce art. As a site of Black free expression, the Square was animated through public gatherings and cultural mixing. Historically, it drew together African and Indigenous performers for white, Black, and Indigenous audiences enthralled by the virtuosity and novelty of the acts. Congo Square serves as a space for reclamation of joy and desire through embodied traditions of music and dance that support spiritual and erotic life. It is in the spirit of the Square that I named the podcast The Clearing, so as to call attention to sites of reprieve, escape, ambiguity, danger, and possible violence.

In Morrison’s Beloved, the clearing becomes a site of healing. One of the characters, Baby Suggs, claims a space in the woods for formerly enslaved characters and their descendants to engage in laying on of hands. Touch grounds self-possession and healing through connection to one’s body and surroundings. Taking hold of the body and taking up space serve as fundamental acts of insurrection for the enslaved and their descendants. These practices counter the capitalist drive to reduce the body to its use value, as a conduit for labor and capital.

Holding on can be a life preserver, or it can be an anchor that prevents progress.

Taking hold of the body and taking up space are integral to Shadow/land, too. As such, the play is part of a central project of Black theatre: to reclaim the Black body for connection and pleasure, not just labor. Black bodies seek and build connection from the introduction to the first scene of Shadow/land, when the griot describes the light streaming through the windows of the bar; in the background, photographs span the walls to form a “second line.” An element of mourning rituals particular to New Orleans, the second line is composed of a brass band that assembles to accompany the deceased along his or her transition.

The music of the second line may be somber or upbeat. Similarly, the bandmembers may enact traditional militarized marching or improvisational dancing and revelry. Usually led by a grand marshal known as a “Nelson,” the musicians play music and march with the family and other mourners in a processional until “the body is cut loose,” sent on it way and released. Syncretic belief systems inform the jazz funeral as a performance tradition. The photographic assembly of family members that line the wall in Shadow/land represent a celebration of life that eases the chill of death.

This celebration becomes embodied when, later in the play, drums play and the “bar top becomes Congo Square.” The bamboula drum, at once an instrument and a dance, recalls the fugitive Bras-Coupé, acclaimed for both his singular rendition of the dance and his ability to evade slave catchers. An entertainer believed to have super-human qualities, Bras-Coupé attempted escape from enslavement multiple times before he finally succeeded.

As a public contact zone, Congo Square served as a space prone to mistranslation and a space for subversion hiding in plain sight. Reference to the Square sets the stage for the characters of Shadow/land to perform memory work, engaging with the past to animate repertoires of survival. Embodied practices of the theatre lend themselves to locating certain forms of memory, which serve as wellsprings for Black survival. In the play, for instance, mother and daughter remember Celestine through call and response of a story that Maggie has recounted before. Through this kind of memory work, artists offer an opportunity to resituate audience members in relationship to traumatic pasts.


Holding Tight and Letting Go

The thoughts, histories, and cultural practices that are gradually slipping from Maggie’s mind become part of a crucial set of resources, transferred through storytelling, listening, dancing, singing, holding, touching, caressing, embracing, cooking, and playing music. In the play, Maggie devises techniques to outsmart dementia. Through flashcards with important names and dates, she archives the past. Although Maggie’s memory fades, Ruth has learned the lessons. The porousness of being together emerges when Ruth recounts seeing Celestine. Meanwhile, Maggie’s hands take on the iridescent sheen of indigo.

Bending sorrow into pleasure and back again, Maggie’s loss of memory shapes the archive that Ruth must now build. Ruth is our model of Black feminist archivist, always poised in the liminal space of past-present-future; Shadow/land is our model of a Black feminist archivist artwork, sampling from the ritual practices of the past while creating a clearing more expansive than a square. The clearing emerges in listeners’ ears, transforming private spaces through corporeal occupation.

In the swinging syncopation that rides beneath the actors’ voices in the intros and outros to each scene, the tradition infuses the bodies of actors and listeners. Memory work occurs in the body, as practices, rituals, and activities that actively engage with the past to reorient and take hold of history. These activities occur alongside racism’s ecosystem, informing the natural and built environment.


Cutting the Body Loose

Although the storm serves as the central backdrop of the play, Shadow/land complicates the relationship between ecological and human conditions. In a nod to Toni Morrison, Maggie reminds Ruth that water returns; it has a perfect memory. Ruth responds that water also takes what it wants, and ancestors do, too. The disruptive force of ancestors and water alike demands new ways of living.

Although memory adheres through holding on, Maggie’s memory loss introduces the possibilities of letting go. The slipping away makes room for something new. In the play, Ruth’s queer desire enables her to explore same-sex longings and how she will live her life and be in relationship with her mother and the legacy she inherits. In the final moments of the play, Ruth realizes that “it is the job of the living to keep in touch with the dead.”

“Keeping in touch” is a tactile form of memory work that, like the laying on of hands, adheres through transfer, contact, and release. Shadow/land works on memory to not only revisit the past, but also to call forth practices that will sustain Black people in the process of self-transformation and collective liberation.


This article was commissioned by Marlene Daut and supported with funds from the Barnard Digital Humanities Center at Barnard College. icon

  1. Tiffany Lethabo King, The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies (Duke University Press, 2019).
Featured image: Handprints (2007). Photograph by Lisa Ann Yount / Flickr (CC0 1.0)