By Tulis McCall
The Liquid Plain, now at the Signature Theatre, is one of those productions that makes a person wonder, “Did anyone read this before they decided to produce it?” It is a many-fold disappointment, not the least of which is that Naomi Wallace tackles gargantuan issues that are rarely shown onstage. In her extraordinary And I And Silence (also seen at the Signature) she tackled the subject of female incarceration coupled with a same sex love affair in a time and place that managed to snuff the women out. Only the love remained behind.
Here Wallace addresses a similar love, except both women are black and one of them is disguising herself as a man. This was a practice performed more often than many people realize, and I was intrigued in the first 30 seconds of the play as the women’s daily ritual of Adjua (Kristalyn Lloyd) binding up Dembi’s (Ito Agayere) breasts and the recitation of their dreams commences. They will escape back to Africa and they will have a son who shines in the firmament.
The play heads south from this moment, however, and gets mired in exposition from which it never escapes.
Adjua and Dembi are scavengers on the docks of Bristol. They collect what they can and make the most of it. A white man, recently drowned, becomes their latest find, until they discover he is not dead. Cranston (Michael Izquierdo) has forgotten his name, so they call him Jeffrey and decide to take pity on him as he may be of use later on.
The next very long scene begins the exposition – we find out a bit about Adjus and Dembi’s individual pasts. Cranston is found to have a parasitizing worm in his leg that Adjua coaxes out enough to begin its slow removal (this will take place over many days we presume). A stranger names Balthazar (Karl Miller) – an Irishman with almost no accent – shows up to tell the two women that the ship for which they have been waiting has been wrecked. He recognizes Cranston as a man he was paid to kill but clearly failed. Next up is the story of how Balthazar survived recent turmoils. Following that is the story of how Adjua’s sister saved Adjua’s life on the slave ship.
Next, Cranston tries to take advantage of Adjua with no success. Liverpool Joe (Johnny Ramey) – heretofore thought dead – arrives on the dockside and we get to hear his story of survival and his promise to take the two women to Africa. Cranston’s memory begins to come back. More of Joe’s story. More of Dembi’s
Cranston’s memory returns, and he recalls being on the ship where Adjua’s sister was lowered into the sea. He testified against Captain DeWolfe, but the captain was acquitted. Joe delivers the boat he promised. Everyone gets ready to sail – did I mention there are only five of them? – Dembi announces he is not going, so Adjua begs him, telling him she is carrying their child. Dembi knows that this is impossible unless…. He stabs Adjua who is taken to the boat.
And that is only the first act.
In the Second Act – 46 years later – Bristol (Lisagay Hamilton) arrives in Bristol, Rhode Island to find her father. She is Adjua’s daughter who was born on this ship just before her mother died. She crosses paths with Cranston, who, believe it or not, still has that dang worm in his leg, and we hear her story of surviving the ship and living this long in England. After leaving Cranston she has a conversation with William Blake’s ghost (Karl Miller) who is hanging in a cage. She continues her adventure and makes her way to the home of Senator DeWolfe (Robert Hogan)- the former sea captain who killed her aunt – and confronts him. She comes close to killing him, but restrains herself. Back at the dock she accuses Crantson of being her biological father. She gives him a knife to cut his leg open and free the 46-year old worm who beelines it to DeWolfe and sets up shop in that man’s body. DeWolfe goes all itchy while we watch. Bristol then hi-tails it to Dembi and we hear another part of the story of Adjua and Dembi. Dembi reveals her sexuality to Bristol, who decides she will stay and take care of street folks and runaways. Dembi is her real father.
Now, this may sound like a lot happens in this play. It does not. While there is a lot of narrative, a lot of coming and going, but there is no action. Oh, people move from place to place. But we do that in real life, and real life does not a play make. In this production no one character is pulling the action forward. This is reminiscent of 19th century melodrama in which characters do a lot of proclaiming, while taking only the most basic of actions. (“You MUST pay the rent!” I can’t pay the rent!”)
In addition, Ms. Wallace introduces the various scenes as “Passages” – the “Passage of Clay,” “The Passage of the Worm,” etc. These titles are projected onto the back wall and serve to confuse rather than connect. The handsome set was built up so high that the people in the first rows must get dizzy from tilting their heads back to look UP at the actors. The actors themselves are suffering from a lack of action the way that congested people suffer from a lack of smell – they become lethargic and show no interest in nourishment. As to the direction – Mr. Kwei-Armah’s touch does not serve to help.
To her credit, Wallace has done her homework and then some. She has ferreted out little know facts – i.e. this play takes place in Bristol, Rhode Island – beginning in 1791 – an overlooked center of the slave trade. It is based on a true life incident on a slaving ship captained by James De Wolfe, whose family was the super-duper leader of the slave trade. De Wolfe lowered a slave woman tied to a chair into the ocean to prevent her from spreading the pox. Wallace draws a direct line from that woman to Adjua and Dembi.
With The Liquid Plain, however, Ms. Wallace overthought herself, became too clever by half and sacrificed story and plot for history lessons. Without a story these lessons soon become monotonous as they, like Peter Pan’s shadow, don’t stick to anyone. The text of The Liquid Plain has no life,and the play collapses under its own weight.
PS – the title of this play comes from a poem by Phyillis Wheatley, born in West Africa and sold as a slave here in 1761 to a family in Boston. She became the first published black poet when she was 12 years old. The Liquid Plain is tears. Yep. Yep. Yep.
While for Britannia’s distant shore
We weep the liquid plain,
And with astonish’d eyes explore
The wide-extended main.
The Liquid Plain by Naomi Wallace, Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah
Pershing Square Signature Center through March 29. www.signaturetheatre.org