The Levee’s Gonna Break: Radical love and hate collide in eta’s latest production

Charles J. Whitman and Kona N. Burns in “Levee James”; courtesy of eta

Charles J. Whitman and Kona N. Burns in “Levee James”; courtesy of eta

When Wesley’s sassy sister-in-law, Lily, comes home for a visit, her agenda includes more than just reminiscences of familial life with her late father and sister; Wesley’s single widower status and indecision about the fate of his daughters provides more than enough fodder for the chiding of firebrand Lily. As the story of the eta Creative Arts Foundation’s new play “Levee James” meanders along at a pleasant and conversational pace, the two eventually plow up a love that–though appearing ambiguous–seems long deterred. Bouncing in and out of the little homestead is Wesley’s friend Fitzhugh, a quirky and optimistic young doer of odd jobs.

While this is hardly enough to provoke a story on its own, the production finally exerts itself as the outside world crowds in on the three, and the ominous presence of Southern white terrorists makes itself known. As rumors and danger become woven into the story, and fear leaks in to the lives of the three, Lily and Wesley clash in their approach to the threat; while Wesley refuses to be associated with the “runnin’ blood” that distinguishes so many of his contemporaries, Lily’s practicality gives her a different outlook. As she reminds the steadfast Wesley in her rich vernacular, “One minute they talkin’ ‘bout who needs to be taught a lesson, next minute the lesson be taught.”

“Levee James” is carried by the starring roles of just three actors–the indefatigable Lily, who pulls out a flask within ten minutes of her appearance; the unmovable and proud Wesley, who tends to stay quiet until pressed; and the charmingly goofy Fitzhugh, who dons an eye patch in an attempt to discourage the nickname “cockeyed Fitzhugh” (eliciting the line, of course, “Now they call me ‘Cockeyed Fitzhugh with the eye patch’”). Kona N. Burns, as Lily, provides the standout performance with a well-hidden vulnerability and a signature, while George C. Stalling and Charles J. Whitman, portraying Wesley and Fitzhugh respectively, amble along quietly but rise up dramatically when their time comes. Whitman in particular delivers an arresting monologue in a climactic moment–as if Wesley is commanding the audience to reconsider his character.

The story’s namesake has no presence other than a brief introduction in the first act, when we learn that Levee James was the father of Wesley, who worked tirelessly alongside him on the levee until his death. Levee James’ short ghost of an appearance stands as a symbol of steadfastness throughout the play, in which Wesley and Lily are forced to determine just how imperative the virtue of standing one’s ground should be in the face of danger.

eta’s adaptation of “Levee James,” written by S.M. Sheppard-Massat and directed by Artisia Green, is clunky at times, with some awkward recordings (car engines, gun shots) played through the speakers, but the personal and simple nature of the production makes sense in eta’s intimate setting. Although it deals with major, dark issues, the story is matter-of-fact and subtle enough that one is unlikely to leave the theater in tears, or in the throws of major catharsis. Still, the subtlety leaves a gnawing sensation of the injustice of such invasive actions, and the question of how to stand up to it.
eta Creative Arts Foundation, 7558 S. South Chicago Ave. April 9-May 31. (773)752-3955.