Winner of the 2012 Horton Foote Prize for promising new American play, The Liquid Plain tells the story of two runaway slaves and their desire to find a ship and sail away to start a new life together in Africa. The play takes place on the docks of Bristol, Rhode Island, in the late eighteenth century, but deals with painful memories of the past and how that past impacts the future. There is a lot of plot, so I won't go into all of it here. The play tackles many subjects, such as slavery, racism, gender identity, revenge and justice. There are a lot of weighty topics discussed throughout and at times, it becomes a little talky and unwieldy, but at times, the heightened lyrical dialogue by Wallace is quite glorious.
I greatly enjoyed the massive scope of what Wallace was trying to do and, again, she's telling a story I didn't know and that interested me greatly. As you may remember, I love a big-scale play telling big-scale stories. I thought the acting was spectacular, most especially by our lead couple. I thought their performances were two of the best I've seen in awhile. Most especially the actress who played Dembi, Ito Aghayere. Dembi lives her life as a man, but we see at the beginning of the play that she's female and that her partner knows she's female. The rest of the characters know her as a man and treat her as a man. The gender politics are quite fascinating and to hear a character say (I'm paraphrasing here): "...being is not about what you're born, who you are is what you carry." I thought this character was fascinating and how she kept paying for the sins of the past was heartbreaking. LisaGay Hamilton was also wonderful as the second generation trying to find her place in the story and in the world.
There were some gorgeous monologues, both painful and poetic, especially the story about Dembi's partner Adjua (beautifully played by Kristolyn Lloyd) and the death of Adjua's sister aboard another ship. The details of that woman's death are real, the rest of the play is Wallace's imagination about what happened around that death. There's a character in the play listed as Shadow; she turns out to be the spirit/form/symbol of that dead sister. The way she's lit and costumed is really wonderful, though I have to admit it took me until the second act to figure out who she was. I felt like a dope for not recognizing her from the start... I also enjoyed the spiritual and magical moments in the play, such as when the ghost of poet William Blake appeared - that scene was really light and enjoyable, yet poignant and very meaningful.
|photo credit: Sara Krulwich|
Quite a few people from the audience stayed - one of the theater's literary associates moderated the chat. The playwright, was unfortunately not there, but we did get to hear from most of the actors, who were incredibly articulate about their feelings about the play and the subject matter. They were all very generous and thoughtful in their answers. There was one uncomfortable moment, though - a woman of a certain age commented that she didn't think one of the characters was actually raped, that she desired the man and that the sex was consensual. Well, that started a flurry of commenting. I mean, I can't imagine how someone would've seen that act of sexual violence as consensual, but ok. I actually felt so sorry for the actress, who seemed to feel as if she'd failed the play if someone didn't understand that moment. And it seemed as if the actress was incredibly depressed for the rest of the talkback. I felt so bad for her and probably should've raised my hand and said that woman stood alone in her opinion. But, there's no accounting for how people see and register drama. Still. There was definitely an elephant in the room for the rest of the talkback; in fact, the moderator had to stop the woman from continuing to comment and make her point (maybe she felt defensive when the rest of the audience sort of radiated a stunned disbelief) and moved on to another question. It was definitely a charged atmosphere, which I guess makes sense because the play tackles ugly subjects and is rather charged in places as well. I wonder how differently it all would've gone if the playwright had been there as well. I guess we'll never know.
So, after seeing two plays by Naomi Wallace this year, I'm still intrigued but not quite completely taken with her style of writing. I will look forward to checking out her next piece in the fall, though. She has a distinctive style, which is nothing to be sneezed at whether I find it theatrical fulfilling or not, and she has stories to tell that interest me. I'll try to keep an open mind and if I still don't love her work, at least I'll have again learned something new. That is always worthwhile...