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A CurtainUp Review
A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick
With Additional Thoughts by Elyse Sommer
Although I am not familiar with her other plays or a previous play also produced by Playwrights Horizons Breath, Boom and Life and Life by Asphyxiation, Corthron is obviously a gifted writer. But she has stuffed this play with enough dramatic content to fill three plays. She has also layered it with more politicized rhetoric than any one play can deal with successfully. That Corthron has a worthwhile cause is evident but it is a shame that her cause in this instance, the world’s water supply and the usurping of its control, grievously smothers the dramatic content.
The term agitprop (see Elyse Sommer’s add-on below) comes readily to mind during the course of this somewhat pedantic work. There are perhaps a few too many discourses particularly as they redundantly affirm and underline Corthron’s ideological agenda. These tend to undermine our interest in the more personal conflicts of the characters. It is for the fine actors, under the sturdy direction of Chay Yew, to keep us involved in their lives even as the rhetoric becomes oppressive as well as obsessive.
Abebe (William Jackson Harper) is an African preacher-in-training who has come to America from his homeland Ethiopia for further studies in both religion and ecology. He has accepted the invitation of Pickle (Myra Lucretia Taylor) to live with her and her daughter H.J. (Kianné Muschett.) Abebe find that though he left his town where the water supply is about to be controlled by a large corporation that is building a dam, he is now livingin a rural American town in the midst of a prolonged drought.
But Abebe is more than an aspiring spiritual leader. He is an optimist with an activist’s zeal and a resolve to serve God as well as to save the world’s water supply. Needless to say, it’s a big, if not inhuman, undertaking — but perhaps not for this disarming zealot who can see the bright side in almost every situation.
From the first moment we see Abebe, as he takes a child-like pleasure in the repeated flushing of an indoor toilet, we know we are in the presence of a joy-intoxicated young man, however possessed by both a spiritual and ecological mission. He is played with an ingratiating charm by Harper. Consequently, as he practices his sermons with increasing fervor, he finds a responsive audience in us as much as from Pickle and H.J.
Middle-aged and grieving the death of her husband, father and son from drowning in New Orleans during the Katrina disaster, Pickle is haunted by their ghosts that speak to her through the walls of her kitchen. Taylor gracefully and exuberantly defines Pickle as a woman who will never really regain the emotional equilibrium she has lost. She does find solace in the blues music of John Lee Hooker and in the pleasure of Abebe’s company. Muschett, who is making her Playwrights Horizons debut, puts plenty of zip into her role as H.J., whose devotion to her mother is equaled by her resistance to being baptized by Abebe.
In one of the play’s more amusing scenes Abebe, who only sees the good in everything, serves as a mediator in the on-again-off again-on-again romance between H.J. and Tich (Keith Eric Chappelle.) To Abebe’s chagrin he learns that Tich works at the local water bottling plant, an excuse for another unsettling rant. Chappelle also ably does double duty in the part of Seyoum, a long time friend of Abebe in Ethiopia. Perhaps the most poignant part of the story concerns Abebe’s attempt to communicate with and guide Tay (Joshua King) an orphaned lad who has remained mute ever since witnessing the murder of his family.
Corthron’s ability to expose a serious world problem is both admirable and relevant. However she loses grasp of the changes in her characters over an eight year period in both America and Ethiopia.
Designer Kris Stone’s cleverly devised settings transport us with ease from a kitchen in America to a barren crick to a water-filled dam in Ethiopia.
The characters, when given a chance, are compelling, interesting, vital and amusing. But, as you might surmise, A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick is self-consciously overwrought, overwritten, and even preachy. Even though I felt as if I was being hit over the head with a sermon, I was also moved and impressed by the playwright’s obviously heartfelt objective.