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A CurtainUp Review
The Liquid Plan
By Elyse Sommer
The Kentucky born writer blends historical research with poetic imagination to introduce a cornucopia of characters, both black and white and from various parts of the world. Unlike Lyn-Manual Miranda's wildly successful musical history lesson, Hamilton , The Liquid Plain is not populated by famous characters. In fact, it's chief purpose is to make us more aware of people whose stories have been undocumented; or, as is the case with Wallace's villain, their stories have been overshadowed by more agreeable data.
That villain, James de Wolfe (Robert Hogan), appears only briefly in the second act. However, the decidedly unheroic Rhode Islander serves as the historic foundation stone for the plot and themes explored. The focus is on how the play's other characters are affected by the slave trading exploits which made De Wolfe enormously wealthy and did not prevent him from becoming a senator. (Many of our early politicians, including Washington and Jefferson were slave owners.)
The plot's many twists and turns include an unpunished murder, sexual issues; as well as the search for love, truth and vengeance seeded by the 1791 characters' actions and never quite satisfied in the next generation. There's also a subplot that adds a touch of mystery about identity.
Given the continuing racial tensions rippling through our national DNA, this is not light entertainment with the upbeat mood that permeates Miranda's show despite the untimely death of its titular character. Yet, The Liquid Plain's overabundance of issues and somewhat contrived plot twists, this adds up to an absorbing two hours.
The play's setting is Bristol, Rhode Island, which was an important slave seaport. First on scene in the 1791 segment are Adjua (Kristolyn Lloyd) and Dembi (Ito Aghayere). They are runaway slaves who are desperate to somehow scrounge together enough money to survive and find their way back to Africa.
The web of connections between Adjua and the other characters begins with her and Dembi pulling a near dead white sailor (Michael Izquierdo) from the sea. They name him Thomas because he can't remember his real name which is John Cranston (that name and role is, like DeWolfe's, recorded but not well known in the history books). Adjua treats the painful guinea worm eating into the rescued sailor's leg and retrieves a small book by poet William Blake from his pants pocket. (Watch for more about that book and the worm!)
Also involved in Adjua and Dembi's planned return to Africa are the daredevil Captain Liverpool Joe (Johnny Ramey) who has previously transported escaped slaves back to Africa and a one-eyed sailor named Balthazar (Karl Miller).
The highly dramatic finale of the first act fast forwards us forty years. This brings three new characters to Bristol. Most prominent is Bristol (Lisagay Hamilton), the English raised free and educated daughter borne by Adjua. She has returned to the place she's named for in search of her roots. The notorious De Wolfe is finally seen rather than heard about.
And sure enough, the little book by William Blake and the painful worm eating into Thomas/Cranston's leg make purposeful come-backs. The little book's author appears in a fantastical interchange with Bristol This rather too fanciful role is the play's only instance of double casting (Karl Miller also plays Balthazzar).
That festering worm now pesters the 1837 version of Cranston (now named Gifford and played by Tuck Milligan). It is, of course, Wallace's metaphor for the ever festering wounds of slavery.
For all the big questions raised and events covered by the script, this is a one-set play. Ricardo Hernandez who designed Wallace's And I And Silence and Trestle at Pope Lick (see links below), has created a most effective wooden environment to suggest the Bristol docks backed by glimpses of the rushing sea. An occasionally lowered and raised empty chair with chains attached is a potent prop to remind us of Adjua's never seen sister and victim of the notorious act for which De Wolfe was never punished.
Costumes, lights, sound design work is also excellent. And, while Alex Koch's projections helpfully announce each new scene, they would have been more so if mounted at either side of the stage and thus readable a bit longer.
Director Kwame Kwei-Armah elicits fine performances all around, especially from Kristolyn Lloyd and Ito Aghayere. However, the script just doesn't develop Cranston's character enough for Kwei-Armah to help Michael Izquierdo make the plain-spoken sailor who turns heroic whistle blower against De Wolfe's infamy at sea more convincing. Kwei-Armah also needed to encourage Robert Hogan, an actor who' I've seen give many standout performances, to not keep his interchange with Bristol at so low a pitch that one is likely to miss much of what he has to say.
Despite the somewhat melodramatic excesses, Wallace has created a striking portrait of the many forgotten Adjuas and Dembis struggling to survive in a brutal world. Though the play began its New York run during Black History month, its not opening officially until March echoes the symbolism of that guinea worm. After all, the aspects of our history represented by slavery continue to be troubling not just one month, but all the time.
Following are links to other Naomi Wallace plays we've reviewed:
And I And Silence— last at Signature in 2014
Things of Dry Hours —at New York Theatre Workshop in 007
Birdy at New York Theatre Workshop 2004
In the Heart of America 1994 play revived in Philadelphia 2014
The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek 1999 at NYTW
One Flea Spare 1997 at the Public