Tori Sampson’s This Land Was Made is about how we archive. Playing now at New York City’s Vineyard Theatre, the play explores what and who we choose to remember, the power of myth-making, and the slippery origin stories of Black liberation. But the play duplicates the very myth-making it seeks to challenge, etching portraits of Black women whose history is still being sanitized, erased, or legislated away.
The fictionalized recollection in Sampson’s play details the rise of African American political revolutionary Huey P. Newton and the Black Panther Party in 1960s Oakland, particularly Newton’s arrest for the murder of an Oakland cop. Sampson takes inspiration from her own mother, and from her mother’s connection to the Panthers as a child. “The Black Panthers were like family to her,” the playwright shared in a recent New York Times interview.
Sassy (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) is our orator, a vibrant writer and local barber who leads us through her memories of 1967 Oakland. A world where “Cherry flavored Kool-Aid is pronounced RED and folks swear not having plastic on your living room sofa is just downright tacky,” Sassy shouts.
Sassy’s world revolves around Trish’s bar, a local dive owned by her mother, Miss Trish (Libya V. Pugh). A flurry of guests—friends turned family—float in and out of the establishment: Troy (Matthew Griffin), Sassy’s love interest; Drew (Leland Fowler), an affable, yet aimless family friend; Gail (Yasha Jackson), Sassy’s best friend; and Mr. Far (Ezra Knight), a pseudo father figure for Sassy. And of course, Huey P. Newton (embodied by Julian Elijah Martinez), who saunters into Trish’s and lights the bar ablaze as the youth laud him and the elders gawk.
Sampson has a real reverence for Black people, a love that beams. Her world is shaded beautifully, an intimate portrait of Oakland’s shifting and kinetic landscape. Smart design does important leg work for worldbuilding, with a detailed set designed by Wilson Chin capturing the time period. Posters advertising musical greats BB King and Louis Armstrong line the bar’s walls. A beaded curtain to the dive’s backroom equally emphasizes our location in time, with every shimmer and catch of light. Costumes by Dominque Fawn Hilll and Deshon Elem also bring a vibrancy to the bar’s animation.
But Sampson’s writing is what ultimately buttresses the world, creating a layered community holding court at Trish’s bar. Sampson empowers characters to skate between states of seriousness and hilarity. All patrons of Trish’s remain open to one another, popcorning from arguments to putdowns to jokes and back again. The play’s opening argument between Miss Trish, Drew, and Far on whether or not Muhammad Ali will be prosecuted for dodging the Vietnam draft melts into an invitation for dinner, before becoming a loving cut up of Drew.
“Boy, if you don’t sit yo’ little skinny ass down. Looking like a broke-leg giraffe,” exclaims Miss Trish of Drew. A harsh critique, yes, but the love is there.
The bar is carved out like an oasis, a sanctuary for Black people to dance, drink, kiss, debate, gossip, and love while writhing under police power. The layered community fashioned on stage felt immediate and necessary as present-day, in-person spaces for kinship feel far and few." But like many spaces of Black activism, the bar is no utopia.
At times, Sampson offers a complicated picture of Black radicalism and its creation myth. Black women often live in a forgotten space, our contributions and pains lost down the drain of time or stamped out via misogynoir. ‘Say Her Name’ and other attempts to highlight the plight of Black women were created for that very reason: to remember, to bear witness.
Sampson doesn’t shy away from depicting the racialized sexism blooming under Black activism in Oakland. Sassy’s requests for an interview with Newton are met with a condescending, “One second, sweetheart.” The men in Sassy’s life attempt to hold her pen hostage, demanding she omits certain events from a pending book. But Sampson’s spotlight seems set to track the play’s men, as women’s lights remain hidden under their bushels.
Crowe-Legacy brings such spirit in her depiction of Sassy. But Sassy becomes more myth-like despite being our protagonist. She’s larger than life in the play’s beginning, the play’s griot (a storyteller as defined by West African tradition). But Sassy is sidelined in her own story, largely acting in service to others. In one scene, after Troy is jumped by a group of white schoolmates, he drunkenly wishes for God to take his Black away. I felt myself recoil with an almost anger, cooled slightly by sadness. I felt for Troy, living with such a potent self-hatred that he would call upon heaven to take away his Black blessing. But a sharp disappointment cut through, as the task again fell on Sassy to nurse Troy’s physical and emotional wounds.
Sassy, lending an ear in the barber chair. Sassy, comforting Troy amid other emergencies throughout the play. Sassy, admonishing others in a grief-stricken attempt to keep her dead brother’s memory alive (he was killed in Vietnam, a year prior). We know increasingly little about Sassy’s inner life: why she loves Troy, a man riddled with self-hatred and an obedience towards law enforcement; her feelings about the metaphysical experience of Black womanhood.
Near the play’s end, Sassy calls Troy out on his emotional dumping. “What do I look like to you? A garbage can?” But the answer is already so clear.
The same limitations are also evident in Sampson’s reconstruction of the Panthers. Sampson’s reimaging of such a prolific Black organization alongside a historical figure like Newton reveals little more about a group that has received an increasingly critical lens.
History has laid out a fractured, complicated, and often abusive portrait of the Black Panthers.
The Black Panthers, who hosted free breakfast programs, but also physically abused its members. The Panthers, known for protecting Black people from police brutality, but whose leaders were accused of sexual violence, including Newton.
It’s not that Sampson’s work has to hold it all. But the choice to tap into history’s well, to tell the story should give us more, for the real and fictional lives caught in the balance.