The Liquid Plain
There's something to be said about white contemporary playwrights who take it upon themselves to pen the Great American race story that propelled scribes like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Dion Boucicault to insta-fame. Seen as merely a "hot topic" to some, the subject of race seems to be fodder for these writers of the stage whom merely haven't the vocabulary or the experience to express it. For some, the material lacks dramatic tension (David Mamet's "Race"). For many, the material loses momentum in the second act (Stephen Adly Guirgis' "Between Riverside and Crazy") or loses its sense of self ("Joel Drake Johnson's "Rasheeda Speaking"). For others, the narrative of the topic can generate as much outrage in what it tries to expose or perpetrate (Rebecca Gilman's "Spinning Into Butter") and rarely do they actually succeed in crafting a modern twist on how we see race relations and privilege then (John Guare's "A Free Man of Color") and now (Bruce Norris' "Clybourne Park"). The same could be said of Naomi Wallace's late 18th century historical fiction epic "The Liquid Plain," the topsy-turvy winner of the 2012 Horton Foote Prize for Promising New American Play, now making its New York debut at Signature Theatre.
The play found its muse from a rather horrific incident: In 1789, Captain James De Wolfe, commanding a voyage of the two-masted slave ship Polly, ordered his crewmen to strap an unnamed, enslaved African woman contagious with smallpox to a chair and lowered into the Atlantic Ocean for the sharks after a possible spread of the virus posed a crisis for the "cargo" aboard. Without batting an eye, the sociopath who would become the second richest person in the U.S. felt regret. "All he said was he was sorry he had lost so good a chair," one of his crew-members said.
Quite possibly one of the strongest starting points of a play that theatergoers may see all season, the thread is quickly leveled by shoddy storytelling, which begins to narrow the edges of its original inspiration with a central story that buries its muse in troubled waters of obscurity and flaky phantasmagoria.
Taking it's title from the Phillis Wheatley poem "A Farewell To America," the show's first act opens on the docks of Rhode Island in 1971, where a pair of runaway slaves, Nigerian beauty Adjua (Kristolyn Lloyd) and her transgender lover Dembi (Ito Aghayere) have taken refuge, waiting to stow away on a ship to travel to Africa, where they plan to find start a family, even though Dembi is biologically a woman. Eking out a life by mending riggings and sails for ships, the couple move about freely (oddly, without the imminent peril of bounty hunters), some times stripping dead bodies of their clothing to sell on the black market.
One such person is the ragtag amnesiac Cranston (Michael Izquierdo), whom they coincidentally save from drowning and ultimately makes their lives miserable. Quite similar to "Pygmalion," the couple decides to groom Cranston into a domestic, in hopes they can increase their revenue and sail away into the sunset. Soon, however, Cranston remembers that he has the power to turn them both over to the authorities for major profit; he also makes his advances very clear to Adjua, expressing that he will force himself on her if necessary. Perhaps he deserves the swarm of parasitic worms in crawling on his leg and chewing at the meat.
A lot happens in between. They meet Balthazar (Karl Miller), an Irish con artist who makes good on his debts and notifies the couple that the ship they've been anticipating over two years has sunk. He also notes that he was paid to drown Cranston, inspiring the pair to bind Cranston in sails and rope and walk the plank. An ally of Toussaint L'Ouverture and the man who steered the ship, the rabble-rousing and swashbuckling Liverpool Joe (Johnny Ramey), arrives. The black captain sings the praises of Cranston who is testifying against James De Wolfe, for the murder of an unnamed slave on his ship (Tara A. Nicholas); Adjua's long lost sister, whose death she's reeling from.
The second act continues 46 years later, as Adjua's daughter Bristol (LisaGay Hamilton), an expat from London returns to America in search of her father, Dembi. She also has a thirst for blood and has the hunting knife to prove it: She plans to murder none other than De Wolfe himself (Robert Hogan), now an elderly man.
She meets Cranston, worms still crawling on her leg, and the two try their best to gross one another out: "Two weeks into the voyage, a lady gave birth to half a child. Both of them were thrown overboard," Bristol says sipping Jamaican rum. Cranston does his best to steer her in the right direction to get some answers, but she finds solutions via the animated cadaver of Romantic English poet William Blake (Karl Miller, again), whose body is decomposing right before her very eyes. Trippy, right? Director Kwame Kwei-Armah and set designer Riccardo Hernandez were nearly way over their heads.
The show is an enthralling, thought-provoking conversation starter for sure, and with excellent performers by Lloyd, Aghayere and Hamilton, the slightly sluggish show doesn't become unsalvageable despite the near zero syzygies of subtext, gravitas and contingency when it comes to overall dramaturgy. However, it's muddled in various subplots and a lack of foundation handling the muse of the story. Wallace waves bon voyage to her audience, marooning forever without a life raft or flares to signal for help.
"The Liquid Plain" runs through March 29 at Signature Theatre, 480 W. 42nd St. For information or tickets, call 212-244-7529 or visit www.signaturetheatre.org