pen/man/ship

by Meg Currell

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday February 22, 2017

We are in an age when people of color feel increasingly unsafe, at risk, and targeted. The true pervasiveness of bias against marginalized people has been revealed, and some seek to escape this unleashed enmity; frightened people have crossed the border into Canada and Mexico, leaving behind a place that has proved that people of color are not welcome.

The play "pen/man/ship," by Christina Anderson, details the 1896 voyage of 17 black Americans to Liberia in search of freedom from the oppressive treatment of people of color in the U.S. Four main characters square off about their experiences in the U.S. and their decisions to leave; Charles Boyd, who organized the voyage; Jacob Boyd, his son; Ruby Heard, Jacob's friend and sole female on the trip; and Cecil, a crew member who becomes friends with Charles.

Cecil is on the voyage to earn money, after loaning his last dollar to someone more in need than he. Ruby seeks self-determination and freedom; having lived in the cruelty of the South her whole life, she refuses to set foot on American soil again. Charles is secretly in the employ of the American Colonization Society, who has hired him to survey land in Liberia to create a penal colony for black people from America. The only person who learns of this true intent is his son, who keeps the controversial news from the rest of the people on the voyage.

It is Ruby's story that intrigues me. She is a woman of strength and purpose, a natural leader whose presence on the voyage is questioned only by the autocrat Charles, who assumes that no one will question someone of his intellectual rank. Ruby does, however, and her presence chafes him.

He verbally cuts her often, saying women are intellectually inferior, backing up his statement with "I speak a medical fact that also happens to be my opinion," "A woman's mind is a senseless maze," and "It's better to live in a desert land than with a vexing and contentious woman."

Ruby never rises to his bait, confident in her ability and knowledge. Charles hides his tilted morality behind his assumed authority, but the deception does not last.

Andrea Whittle ably takes the part of Ruby, an immovable strength that refutes Charles' arrogance. Vin Shambry charms as the affable Cecil, breathing life into his "squeezebox" that is mimicked in the sail. As Jacob, DeLance Minefee is sturdy and poetic as Jacob, drawn to Ruby's quiet strength but loyal to his father; "I love you," he tells Ruby, "In the most painful way possible. I hate my father in the tenderest way possible."

Adrian Roberts plays the intimidating Charles with deftness and compassion, giving us a man so convinced of his superiority that he doesn't know right from wrong. Like King Lear, Charles spirals into a madness of his own making, and Roberts imbues the character with conviction.

Director Lucie Tiberghien has placed this production on an "end stage," with audience areas on opposing sides of the stage. In the resulting rectangle, a shallow pool of water is surrounded by a wooden boardwalk. In the pool stands a small table and a chair at opposite corners. The sunken pool area acts as the cabin below deck where Charles spends most of his time. The boardwalk is the deck. Above it hangs a sail that lifts and falls as if with the wind.

It's an intriguing set, but the use of the water remains a mystery throughout, serving neither as symbolism (getting their feet wet in freedom? The ship is sinking? This vessel of idealism is taking on water? "Waiting for Godot"-like surrealism?) nor realistic depiction of life at sea. It does serve to provide some lovely water sounds, but beyond that, its meaning is lost, and its presence a distraction.

"Pen/man/ship" is a marvelous piece of writing, and while the first act is text-heavy, the play asks questions we are facing today. Who decides who gets to put whom in what box? What does it mean to reject Christianity because it's a tool of conformity? What does patriotism mean? "(This country) celebrates the victories but ignores the injustices."

Do we continue living within this unbalanced culture or do we leave and seek true freedom? "Hope damages us; doubt is one of the most powerful weapons we have." These people all have reasons for leaving America, and those reasons have flowered anew today.

Touching on questions of criminality, imprisonment, freedom and self-determination, this tragic play changed the way I look at this country. As many people have begun to realize the onerous influence our historical inequality has had, this play reminds us that these questions demand our attention.

"pen/man/ship" runs through March 5 at Portland Playhouse, 602 NE Prescott St, Portland, OR 97211. For tickets and information, call 503-488-5822 or visit www.portlandplayhouse.org/penmanship

Meg Currell is a freelance author based in Portland, where she moved for the coffee and mountain views. With a background in literature and music, she explores dance, concerts and DIY with equal enthusiasm. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories.