The Myth of History

Aug 28, 2013

Naomi Wallace

For its special initiative, American Revolutions, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival commissions playwrights to explore a critical moment or issue in U. S. history.  Of the five works the OSF has developed and produced under this rubric so far, Naomi Wallace’s intriguing, disruptive The Liquid Plain, premiering this season in the Thomas Theatre, also questions the stability of history itself, composed as it is of competing myths. 

The action of Plain orbits an event that really happened, but the program notes set the scene in “an imagined Bristol, Rhode Island”—warning us not to be fooled by dates and documentation into expecting objective realism. Each scene delivers a reversal, a revelation, or magical narrative.  Refusing measured, linear progress, the play unbalances both our textbook bromides about slavery and our assumptions about dramatic structure. 

Act One emerges from the mist “on the far end of the docks.” A black-and-white group of silhouettes takes on gritty texture and color as escaped slaves and lovers, Adjua (June Carryl) and Dembi (Kimberly Scott), drag a drowned man (Danforth Comins) out of the sea.  After they strip the body, a tug of war ensues over its disposal, during which the man revives, the first of many characters in whom life and death entwine.  Playing God-as-slavemaster, Adjua names this “nothing from nowhere” Thomas, assigns him a talent for tailoring, and recounts her own tortured backstory by inflicting it on him.

With the strange blend of necessity and spontaneity that characterizes dreams, enter Balthazar (Armando Duran), who murdered the resurrected man, identified as John Cranston.  Balthazar additionally offers the bitter news that the ship captain whom the two lovers hired to take them to Africa, Liverpool Joe (Kevin Kenerly), has drowned in a shipwreck.  Enter Liverpool Joe two scenes later, very much alive and dapper, having survived thanks to a school of blue fish that swam into his lungs and gave him oxygen!  Joe, a Black slave-child, raised in England by a white duchess, is so convinced that “general bad luck” converts to “specific good luck” for him that he’s named his new ship “The Leak.”  We have clearly jumped the box of history into the paradoxical space of myth. 

In a further coincidence, Cranston turns out to have been a sailor aboard the slave-ship that brought Adjua and her sister to the United States.  He witnessed the horrific historical event at the center of the action: the drowning of Adjua’s pox-infected sister ordered by the slaver’s captain, De Woolf. 

The five lost souls have formed an imperfect union and are preparing to sail to England when reminiscent of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, a violent turn of events powered by sexual jealousy ends Act One, and Act Two opens decades later.  The focus shifts to a Victorian woman of color named Bristol Waters (Bakesta King), who has sailed from England to kill de Woolf, now a senator.  We don’t have to recall The Winter’s Tale to know she must be Adjua’s daughter. 

In Act One, myth and history coexist; in Act Two, they collide.  Bristol arrives wrapped in her personal creation myth, which presses her to avenge her aunt’s murder at sea and her mother’s life of suffering.  A sort of self-styled historian, she thinks the narrative she has woven to sustain herself reflects the truth.  One shock after another reveals that it doesn’t. 

She confronts three white men.  Cranston, now the owner of a seedy bar, is consumed by guilt, symbolized by a parasitic guinea worm.  De Woolf is arrogant and obtuse, and in defiance of an axiom of traditional playwriting, Wallace has Bristol brandish a knife through two scenes then decide killing De Woolf is pointless because he is already dead.  Between encounters with these two historical figures, she meets William Blake—the eighteenth century poet and ardent critic of Enlightenment rationalism, worldview of our forefathers, which allowed them to draft the documents creating the United States while turning a blind eye to slavery.  Drunk on rum, Bristol finds Blake speaking from the rotting body of a gibbeted criminal.  The bizarre, darkly comic relief of this expressionistic scene turns to nightmare in the next when she must relive the death by drowning suffered by her aunt.

A play like The Liquid Plain challenges production.  Director Kwame Kwei-Armah and his design team succeed brilliantly in reinforcing the symbolic resonance of the story.  Particularly affecting are Alex Koch’s projections, which in Act One evoke the oceans volatile moods.  In Act Two, this fluid expanse first petrifies into something resembling the cracked surface of an old oil painting of the sea.  Then a further remove from organic vitality, the walls inside the senator’s box scream with garish wallpaper. 

The performances in Act One are rich and riveting—Kenerly’s Liverpool Joe is a standout cameo, and as the lovers, Carryl is buoyant and audacious while Scott’s conveys a stolid sense of doom.  Appropriately callow in Act One, Comins disappears brilliantly into the decrepit, cynical, yet eloquent Cranston of Act Two.  King’s Bristol takes the myth of Victorian sobriety a little too seriously; more passion and energy from this self-styled avenging angel would pull the disparate parts of the second act into coherence. 

The Liquid Plain challenges audiences as well, shuttling as it does between history and myth, playing havoc with realism.  The interlude with William Blake may have nowhere to land for those unfamiliar with his work.  Yet the play invites us to emulate Dembi in developing “a mind like the sky”--to open our expectations of what plays should be in order to experience what this play is--tricky and symbolic, a critique of history with the intuitive structure of a poem.