This Land Was Made

Antoinette Crowe-Legacy. (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Julian Elijah Martinez and Matthew Griffin. (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

By: Darryl Reilly

This bar is special to me.
I fell in love right there on that chair.
Got my heart broken at this table.
Wrote my first book in every inch of this place.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Welcome to back in the day
where the sign outside say this here is Ms. Trish’s Bar.

So, begins playwright Tori Sampson’s ambitious, moving and eventful fantasia, This Land Was Made, which is structured as a memory play. Huey P. Newton (1942-1989) was a founder of the counterculture American activist organization, the Black Panthers. In October 1967, he was arrested for a police shooting that left an officer dead, his conviction was later overturned. Ms. Sampson offers an imaginary scenario where Newton is a central character, and that confrontation with law enforcement is searingly depicted. This Land Was Made dramatizes 1960’s Black life in Oakland, California, with all its generational and political conflicts.

Employed is the trusty theatrical device of setting the play in a bar, where a host of lively characters interact and come and go. Ms. Trish is the feisty owner who plans to sell it and return to back the South. Her free-spirited daughter, Sassy is a barber and an aspiring writer. She is the narrator, alternatively telling the story in the future and appearing in the past narrative. We learn that her younger brother was a soldier who was killed in Vietnam. Other figures around are a garrulous middle-aged owner of a car repair garage, a troubled male college student who is romancing Sassy, Sassy’s loquacious best female friend, a fiery young male who idolizes Muhammad Ali for battling the military draft, and menacing police officers.

Libya V. Pugh, Julian Elijah Martinez, Leland Fowler and Ezra Knight. (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Sampson richly delineates her appealing characters, the dialogue is eloquently earthy, plot threads are compelling, and a sense of history is ever present. This Land Was Made is presented in two acts with an intermission and it does contain portions where momentum wanes. Still, it is enchantingly realized for the stage by a superior production and its forceful cast.

Leland Fowler, Libya V. Pugh and Antoinette Crowe-Legacy. (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

The radiant Antoinette Crowe-Legacy’s sunny presence informs her magnetic characterization of Sassy. Libya V. Pugh captures Miss Trish’s humor, strength and conservatism, through her majestic portrayal. Matthew Griffin is soulful as the student in love with Sassy who gets in trouble with the Black Panthers. Animated Julian Elijah Martinez’s Huey P. Newton is an engaging take on that firebrand. Ezra Knight achieves comedic pathos during his commanding performance as the garage owner, especially when expressing paternal-style affection for Sassy. Leland Fowler scores as the rambunctious mascot. The alluring Yasha Jackson is vividly outgoing as Sassy’s best friend. Making strong impressions in their subsidiary roles are Curt Morlaye as a youthful Black Panther, and Sean Patrick Higgins and Oliver Palmer as police officers.

Yasha Jackson and Libya V. Pugh. (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Director Taylor Reynolds’ successful staging melds these performances with the production elements for a kinetic presentation. Scene designer Wilson Chin’s gloriously detailed bar set is perfection. Angry red hues and moody darkness characterizes Adam Honoré’s eclectic lighting design which visually evoke the shifting time periods and complements the actions. Music, gunfire and other effects are realized by Fan Zhang’s vibrant sound design. The authenticity of costume designer Dominique Fawn Hill 1960’s-style clothing is magnified by Nikiya Mathis grand wig and hair design.

The play’s knowing title references Woody Guthrie’s 1940 sarcastic song, “This Land Is Your Land”; it counters Irving Berlin’s sentimental “God Bless America.” This Land Was Made cogently blends the personal with the historical for an involving experience.

This Land Was Made (through June 25, 2023)
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit
Running time: two hours including one intermission


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