The captain of the slave ship, afraid that the sick woman would infect the rest of his cargo, lashed her to a chair and lowered the chair into the sea, drowning her.
“After the captain threw her overboard, he said he was sorry he had lost so good a chair. “
So says a character named Cranston in “The Liquid Plain,” the second of Naomi Wallace’s plays to be presented this season at the Signature. Cranston is explaining to the drowned woman’s sister, Adjua, what he witnessed, and what he testified to in court.
The story will be repeated in various ways throughout the often gruesome, grim, grimy play, including a final confrontation by a free black woman named Bristol (LisaGay Hamilton) with the captain (Robert Hogan), a cultured man who enjoys fine art and made 88 voyages that turned 10,000 Africans into slaves.
The variations on this story of the captain and the chair that run through “The Liquid Plain” are the most riveting and accessible moments in a mostly dream-like (nightmarish) play for which I otherwise had much the same reaction as I did for Wallace’s previous production at the Signature, And I And Silence. As with that play, “The Liquid Plain” is well-acted, well-staged, and most rewarding for those with the patience to treat it the way they would a poem — uncertain of its meaning at times, content with its layered language and its rich rhythms…and, in this play’s case, its brutal imagery.
The play begins in 1791 on the docks in Bristol, Rhode Island, where Adjua (Kristolyn Lloyd) is one of two runaway slaves who are planning to sail back to Africa, waiting only on a ship that will take them. She and Kembi (stand-out Ito Aghayere) discover a white man who has been drowned, and strip him of his belongings – until they discover that he is in fact still alive. This is Cranston (Michael Izquierdo), who only slowly recovers the memory of who he is and what he’s done. He is a sailor, who testified against the slave ship captain’s brutality – which is why somebody was paid to kill him. A plot of sorts ensues, melodramatic and convoluted (and involving several other characters) which takes us, in the second act, to the same dock 46 years later – slavery still a poison in the lives of every American.
In interviews, the creative team (including playwright Wallace and director Kwame Kwei-Armah) has made clear that it sees “The Liquid Plain” as a dramatization of American history. Indeed, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival commissioned the play as part of their American Revolutions cycle (“a ten-year project dedicated to chronicling moments of change in U.S. history.”) But the drama for most of its two hours struck me as too vague and idiosyncratic to feel based in fact. Wallace seems far more interested in poetry than history. The dialogue often feels imposed by the playwright, rarely sounding the way two people would actually speak to one another, even in the 18th century. One entire scene is a conversation with the poet William Blake – who is embodied by a decaying corpse (Karl Miller) suspended in a cage in mid-air, suddenly come to life, though dropping fingers and other body parts. This, as well as the lines from Blake’s poems sprinkled throughout “The Liquid Plain,” seems borrowed from a different play … if any play at all.
The Liquid Plain
At the Pershing Square Signature Center
By Naomi Wallace; directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah; sets by Riccardo Hernandez; costumes by Paul Tazewell; lighting by Thom Weaver; music and sound by Shane Rettig; projections by Alex Koch; wig, hair and makeup design by Cookie Jordan; dialect coach, Charlotte Fleck; fight director, Unkledave’s Fight-House
Cast: Ito Aghayere (Dembi), LisaGay Hamilton (Bristol), Robert Hogan (James De Wolfe), Michael Izquierdo (Cranston), Kristolyn Lloyd (Adjua), Karl Miller (Balthazar/William Blake), Tuck Milligan (Gifford), Tara A. Nicolas (Shadow), Johnny Ramey (Liverpool Joe) and Lance Roberts (Nesbitt).
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including a 15 minute intermission
The Liquid Plain is scheduled to run through March 29, 2015