"The Liquid Plain" is a horrifically vivid history lesson about the New England slave trade, told partly as poetry, partly as farce and partly as melodrama.
The play, by award-winning American writer Naomi Wallace, had its world premiere Saturday night in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Thomas Theatre. It is the latest commissioned project in American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle, OSF's 10-year program of producing new plays about moments of change in the nation's history.
Wallace's language and construction are by turns elegant, elegiac, brutally explicit and not always stylistically conventional. Director Kwame Kwei-Armah's daunting task is to take this very literary work and bring it to life on stage. The results are somewhat mixed.
The story line divides into two parts. In Act I, we are introduced to two runaway slaves, Adjua (June Carryl) and Dembi (Kimberly Scott), eking out a living on the docks of Bristol, R.I., in 1791. As the play opens, they pull a nearly drowned man out of the water to retrieve his clothes to sell.
The man, Cranston (an unrecognizable Danforth Comins), has no memory of his past. The slaves put him to work mending sails and scavenging salvage. It is an uneasy truce, made more precarious as Cranston starts lusting after Adjua and threatens to turn the two in to the authorities.
Adjua and Dembi are awaiting the arrival of a privateer who will provide them with passage to Africa. The appearance of Balthazar (Armando Durán), an impressed Irish sailor who has jumped ship, and the arrival of the privateer captain, Liverpool Joe (Kevin Kenerly), a free black man raised in England, reveals an unexpected story that binds these disparate characters together to a common event.
Kwei-Armah's staging gives us an overly flamboyant Balthazar and Liverpool Joe that are all bravado and bluster — almost caricature. It is only on reflection on Wallace's actual dialogue that the men's precarious existence and constant fear of entrapment or death become part of their portrait. That underlying complexity ultimately explains why the two would agree to join the slaves in their plans for a virtually uncharted voyage, and it isn't always obvious from the action onstage.
Similarly, Cranston's brutish behavior toward Adjua and Dembi belies his history of having testified against his ship's captain for the murder of a woman slave at sea. It is as though the blow to the head that nearly drowned him also knocked out the sense of decency and justice that would have prompted his extraordinary act of courage. Wallace and Kwei-Armah haven't given us a nuanced portrait of Cranston. He becomes the real villain of the story, a bitter and defeated man, crabby to the end.
And then we move to Act II, set 46 years later — which could have been written for a totally different play.
Filled with poetry, arcane allusions to William Blake, discourses on art versus life and ending with a call to active participation toward social justice, the second act of "The Liquid Plain" is an abrupt leap from Act I's stylistically conventional narrative.
Cranston now owns a seedy tavern on the docks. Bristol (Bakesta King), an educated, free black woman from England, appears and seeks his help. She wants to kill James De Woolf, the former ship captain and now ex-U.S. senator who murdered that woman slave. She is also searching for her father. The results of both quests are unexpected.
De Woolf (Michael Winters) is supposed to be the maddening "that's all in the past, let's just forget about it" character. But, how do you deal with a character who is self-satisfied, conscious of what he has wrought, but with no remorse? De Woolf, in the play and in real life, transported more than 10,000 slaves from Africa to the Americas. He was immensely successful financially, socially and politically. He received no censure; there were no repercussions.
"The Liquid Plain" deliberately offers the audience no closure. Wallace leaves the question open, as a conversation that remains unresolved. It leaves us with a sense of horror — which may just be the way she should have ended the play.
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at email@example.com.