In Oakland, Calif., in 1968, Huey P. Newton, the Black Panther leader, was convicted of killing a white police officer. In 1971, after two more trials and nearly two years in prison, he was cleared of all charges. So who pulled the trigger?
That’s the question at the heart of “This Land Was Made,” the gutsy but murky new play by Tori Sampson at the Vineyard Theater. Part murder mystery and part counterfactual yarn, with generous helpings of sitcom and social drama thrown in, it doesn’t hold together in the largely naturalistic framework provided by Taylor Reynolds’s production. But several elements remain compelling on their own, especially when they acknowledge and repurpose familiar forms.
Most successful is the sitcom element, which could be titled “Trish’s,” an Oakland bar where everybody knows your name. Miss Trish (Libya V. Pugh) is a New Orleans transplant with a sharp if loving tongue, serving beer and soul food to regulars who come for the schmooze as much as the fare. In one corner, her daughter, Sassy (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), trims the Afros of old-timers and revolutionaries alike.
For about 25 minutes, Sampson serves up something warm and piquant at Trish’s: an interplay of zingers, flirtations, spats and politics. Sassy is being romanced by Troy (Matthew Griffin). Her flashy friend Gail (Yasha Jackson) spars with the out-of-work Drew (Leland Fowler). Mr. Far (Ezra Knight), an avuncular mechanic, smooths everything over, with one affectionate eye on Trish and one on her fried chicken.
Opinion on the Black Power movement is neatly divided among them. Troy, studying government in college and planning to be a judge, has no time for performative radicalism; Drew, who styles himself a “King Black Man” and is enamored of the Panthers, calls Troy a sellout. Mr. Far doesn’t like seeing “youngins stomping round with big chests” instead of working, but is sympathetic. And Trish, who lost a son in Vietnam, is fatalistic.
“They gotta give up power for you to get some,” she says of white people. “Newsflash, that ain’t finna happen.”
That Newton himself then walks into the bar seems like the setup for a joke — and, indeed, at first, he is handled cheerfully. With his swagger and charisma, and despite the bandolier of bullets draped sash-like over his leather coat, he is, in Julian Elijah Martinez’s electrifying performance, way more exciting than scary. Later, Martinez will fill in the more troubling aspects of the character, but at this point even Troy finds him impressive and approachable enough, despite their antipodal politics, to accept his invitation to a rally.
Whether this meet cute of radicalism and conservatism is historically plausible, it is compelling as part of the playwright’s mission. Sampson, who grew up in a Black Power household, recently told my colleague Naveen Kumar that in writing “This Land Was Made” she “wanted to talk about the lowercase-p Panthers, as people.” When she intermittently achieves that sort of conversation — and in the process dramatizes the ways some Black Americans responded to the uppercase-p Panthers — the play hits a sweet spot at the intersection of fact and fiction.
Then it swerves. The officer is killed and Sassy, in her secondary role as present-day narrator, sets out to reveal, as history has not, whodunit. “This Land Was Made” offers three variations on the fatal confrontation. Unfortunately, the staging, with interstitial rewinds as seen in “Hamilton,” is so unclear you may have trouble following any of the outcomes, which all involve one of the regulars at Trish’s.
A bigger problem is the meaning of the invention. Is it designed to counteract an un-nuanced and possibly racist judgment on the movement as extremist and anti-American? The play’s title — taken from the song “This Land Is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie’s bitter retort to “God Bless America,” suggests as much. But it’s one thing to probe the past and extrapolate some answers; it’s another to claim, as Sassy does, that the play depicts “the exact events” that the world has never known “until today.”
Perhaps that magical yet iffy omniscience — Sassy calls herself a griot, or traditional keeper of stories — would have felt less jarring in a more abstract production. (Wilson Chin’s set, though handsome, is compulsively detailed, right down to the B.B. King showcards.) In 2019, the fable-like “If Pretty Hurts,” Sampson’s first professionally produced play, got an impressionistic staging at the Atlantic Theater Company that enhanced her rich language instead of fighting it. Another Sampson play that year, “Cadillac Crew,” about women workers in the Civil Rights movement, did not, and fell flat.
A more ambitious work than either, “This Land Was Made” does not yet seem certain of what it wants to be. Its sitcom setup (Sampson credits Norman Lear as an inspiration) clashes with the deadly seriousness that comes later, reducing the effectiveness of both. With a killing still unsolved at its center, it can’t, as Sassy instructs, “tell it like you know it.” It can only hazard a few unsatisfying guesses.
This Land Was Made
Through June 25 at the Vineyard Theater, Manhattan; vineyardtheatre.org. Running time: 2 hours.
Jesse Green is the chief theater critic for The Times. His latest book is “Shy,” with and about the composer Mary Rodgers. He is also the author of a novel, “O Beautiful,” and a memoir, “The Velveteen Father.” @JesseKGreen
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