Review: In ‘Travisville,’ the Rocky Path of Change in a Southern Town

Posted October 12, 2018 10:09 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — The best path to justice may not be the smoothest one. Even Elder Alden Hearst is starting to get antsy, and he’s long been a calm, dependable intermediary between his African-American community and the white power structure of the Southern city where he lives.

“I have spent my entire civic life building political capital,” a frustrated Hearst eventually tells the mayor, Ainsley Gillette. “When do I get to spend it?”

This is one among many similar questions in “Travisville,” the playwriting debut by William Jackson Harper, best known for portraying philosophy professor Chidi Anagonye on the series “The Good Place.” This earnest, oddly flat show takes place in 1964, but its preoccupations have an obvious contemporary resonance: What is the best way to carry out change? When does negotiation turn into collaboration, especially compared to disruptive activism?

Harper’s play, which just opened at Ensemble Studio Theater, revolves around the city’s plan to build a “new indoor/outdoor concept shopping district” — in other words, a mall. Unfortunately for everybody involved, there is already something in the preferred location: a black neighborhood whose residents will need to be relocated, to use a popular euphemism for kicked out of their homes in exchange for a modest sum.

As the leader of the local Ministers’ Alliance, a spiritual, civic and de facto political group, Hearst (Brian D. Coats) must deal not just with Mayor Gillette and developer Jaston Honeycutt (both played by Denny Dale Bess), but also with his fellow pastors.

A battle between competing tactics erupts after a young Atlanta college graduate, Zeke Phillips (Sheldon Best, recently seen in “Sugar in Our Wounds”), sits at a white lunch counter and gets arrested. The men of the cloth are unsure of how to deal with both the idealistic Zeke and the looming mall. The Voting Rights Act has recently passed so maybe things will improve on their own, some think. Then again, people are going to lose their houses — maybe progress could use a hard push.

These hesitations are given voice by Pastor Ora Fletcher (Bjorn DuPaty), stuck between the impatience manifested by D.L. Gunn (Nathan James), who is ready for Zeke-style confrontation, and Hearst’s accommodating ways.

“We will get there,” the older man tells Gunn early on. “We will. But in the meantime, we have to make do with what we have.” Until, of course, that just isn’t enough.

To his credit, Harper does not set up clear-cut dichotomies. Hearst, for instance, isn’t a yes man, and even he loses his sang-froid as the situation takes a tragic turn. The show’s two white characters are not actively hostile — which almost counted as tolerant in the 1960s South — and don’t want to be compared with “them rednecks in Alabama and Mississippi.” (Amusingly, Bess plays them pretty much the same so the only way to identify who’s who is by his mustache’s angle: down, he’s the mayor; up, the developer.)

The cast is compelling and the show well directed by Steve H. Broadnax III, who sets up fluid transitions in and out — characters often enter while those already there are still talking, as if a baton was passed.

It is all very neat. Too neat, perhaps: The story feels overly polished in a way that will be familiar to observers of well-crafted contemporary U.S. theater. Harper has serious writing chops, but if the story of activism has taught us something, it’s that a little mess can be liberating.


Through Oct. 28 at Ensemble Studio Theater, Manhattan; ensemblestudiotheatre.org.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.