Review: Travisville by King Productions
by David Glen Robinson
Austin was doubly blessed this weekend in having overlapping performances of two new and emerging plays that will influence race relations in America for years to come. The first was The Mountaintop by Katori Hall, on the last days of Martin Luther King, Jr. It played its last weekend at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Grover Avenue. The second related play is Travisville by William Jackson Harper, produced by King Productions. That play illuminates the civil rights struggle since Dr. King, revolving around the injustices and suffering brought on by gentrification. It ws on stage at Imagine Art on the east side, formerly Arts on Real. Producer Robert King, Jr. said pointedly in his curtain speech that the venue location lies in the center of gentrified East Austin, where development companies bought out homeowners or manipulated government to force out homeowners who refused to sell, largely by use of imminent domain.
Indeed, the fictional events of the play could have taken place in reality in Austin within the last twenty years. Harper's brilliantly written and plotted play offers dialogues that could have been snipped from newspaper stories over that period. City officials, developers, ministers, social activists, machine shop owners, retirees, families, and victims all tell their truths. The intellectual contest between opposing groups of African-Americans in their own community is the heart of the story. That contest is simply whether to wait quietly for humane, evolutionary change to take place; or to force the issues, call out injustice, and risk potentially violent consequences. This was a debate conducted repeatedly in MLK’s movement by the core of his team. People of independent thought and action continue to work through the debate with different outcomes year after year.
The inestimable value of Travisville is its straightforward and brutally honest statement to the world by African-Americans of their plight in gentrification. One feels that the dialogues in the play originated around kitchen tables in private or in church basements over church dinners.
Andrew Goldberg directed the production.
The issues are articulated clearly by many actors in the large cast. The standouts are many, but not all the actors can be mentioned by name in this summary review. The wheelhorse of the entire play was Anthony “Amp” Roscoe, who played Elder Alden Hurst, leader of the ministerial alliance. He expressed his distrust of the more activist development foes, articulating the go-slow position until the perfidy of the White power establishment defeated him. He made all his points forcefully, clearly seeking to deflect from his people the Jim Crow levels of violence he saw looming. His fear and love and faith were palpable. An “amen” goes to Amp Roscoe.
Melody Fullylove, one of the stars of Lisa B. Thompson’s The Mamalogues, played Laverne Campbell, who told her story of being widowed in that kind of violence years prior. Her performance gave a bittersweet tone to the sorrow and identified some of the treasures lost in the disappearance of family-based communities. Courtney D. Williams as Minister Ora Fletcher did the heavy lifting in the show as the ministerial go-between of the opposing sides, paying for it as all those in that position do with criticism from both sides. He ably expressed the ups and downs and stresses of the crisis, at the same time caring for his pregnant wife, played by Vanessa Woods. Addrian Gaut played the opposition, the representative of the Congress of Racial Equality, visiting from Atlanta and stirring up trouble. His delivery was clear and unfailing. Robert Henry played multiple roles easily and well. Donald Harrell as Hollis Burch gave a well-delivered monologue as a community homeowner. The usually mild-mannered Mike Dellens delivered a high point when he expressed astonishment that community members didn’t believe his stated development plans for the projected community of Travisville.
The Imagine Art venue off Alexander Street illustrates the many lost battles of the community movements that cried out against gentrification. The streets all around Imagine Art are lined with four- and five-story rat-cage apartment buildings in ugly architecture worthy of Moscow but over-priced nonetheless. King Productions essentially built their theatre inside Imagine Art (the art gallery removed and reconfigured the theatre space of Arts on Real when the facility changed hands). The shoe-horning of a theatre production into an open gallery space was not entirely effective, however. An opening directly upstage stayed lit and was not blocked sufficiently to suppress a massive lighting bleed throughout the show; it caused the patrons in the front house rows to squint. Worse, a gallery staff member or student walked into the room behind that opening directly through a play scene in progress. Outside conversations in the lobby could be heard plainly in the house.
The lighting design by James Cooley was a noble effort, largely successful without a formal overhead lighting grid. The actors frequently failed to live up to the potential of the lighting design by backing out of their light into darkness, clearly not intentionally. Light focusing and directorial blocking in coordination could correct the problem. The space configured for the play challenged entrances and exits, and the cast frequently missed or delayed their cues.
These are mere details of the rough edges of a play presented in an alternative space. They do not diminish the power of it, and King Productions is to be applauded for presenting this illumination of the abuses of the race-fueled conflicts of gentrification. The play is recommended to everyone touched in some way by gentrification, particularly people currently living in eastside apartments.
February 28 - March 08, 2020
2830 Real Street
Austin, TX, 78722
Thursdays - Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m.
Tickets Available Online At:
Or By Calling: 1800-838-3006