by: Carol Rocamora
Ghosts are haunting the Alice Griffin stage at Signature Theatre Center – ones from deep in America’s past. They’re appearing in a new play called The Liquid Plain, Naomi Wallace’s intense melodrama about slavery and its festering legacy in our history.
Commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for their ten year American Revolution cycle, Wallace has resurrected the spirits of long-forgotten souls on the docks of Bristol, Rhode Island, to tell a riveting story of a runaway slave and her struggle for freedom.
Wallace’s story spans 46 years. In the first act, set in 1791, features Adjua (a commanding Kristolyn Lloyd) and her co-hort Dembri (a feisty Ito Aghayere), runaways who have been hiding out for two years, waiting to find a vessel that will return them to their native Africa. This desperate yet determined pair is joined by several others – first, a white man whose lifeless body Adjua has hauled from the sea onto the dock. He turns out to be John Cranston (Michael Izquierdo), a sailor who had crossed the ocean from Africa on a boat helmed by the slave-trading Captain James De Wolfe – a vessel that, coincidentally, also carried Adjua’s sister. On that crossing, it is revealed, Adjua’s sister contracted small pox, and the cruel Captain tossed her body into the sea.
Another character joins this motley crew – the swashbuckling (black) Captain Liverpool Joe, who has heroically been transporting runaway slaves back to Africa. He offers to do the same for the couple, but as they prepare to board the vessel, Adjua reveals that she’s pregnant, Dembri has a change of heart, and a shocking act of violence occurs that changes their destinies.
Flash-forward to Act II (1837), again set in Rhode Island. Adjua’s daughter Bristol (Lisagay Hamilton) has returned from England where she has been raised, to find both her father and her aunt’s murderer, De Wolfe, now a US Senator. Her encounter with them both brings the play to a double dramatic climax.
There are numerous contrivances and coincidences to Wallace’s plot, and they’re sometimes challenging to decipher. But Wallace is both a passionate and colorful storyteller, and she’s done her research well (De Wolfe and John Cranston are actual characters in the history books). Director Kwame Kwei-Armah steers this ship skillfully, navigating it through the plot’s complexities. Ricardo Hernandez hoists up a striking, nautical-themed set with rough planks and soaring heights. Along with designers Thom Weaver (lighting) and Paul Tazewell (costumes), he creates a vivid scene on which Armah highlights the play’s arresting images – such as the lurid sight of the dead poet William Blake hanging from the theatre’s rafters in an iron coffin.
Throughout, the ashen ghost of Adjua’s sister lurks about the stage – seated center stage on the chair in which the cruel Captain lowered her into the sea, or on a balcony, or wandering through the audience. We never learn her name – Adjua and her daughter refuse to reveal it, as if its secrecy is her only sanctity and vestige of dignity.
Judging from the arresting number of high-profile plays this season about slavery (including Suzan-Lori Parks’s Father Comes Home From the Wars Parts I, II, and III at the Public and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s wildly extravagant An Octoroon at Theatre for a New Audience), American history is very much on our playwrights’ minds.
“The Liquid Plain”, Wallace’s title, comes from a poem written by Phillis Wheatley, the first published African-American poet, who was transported on a slave ship to America in the late 1700s and sold to the Wheatley family in Boston. By gracing her play with Wheatley’s verse, Wallace is honoring all those forgotten souls whom we are now remembering in the American theatre.
The Liquid Plain by Naomi Wallace, directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, now through March 29, www.signaturetheatre.org
Photos: Joan Marcus