Chained and Unchained: Africa Bound

Anderson’s research of the historical context of 'pen/man/ship' is evident in every line. However, she doesn't overwhelm you with historical detail, letting the characters steer the action.

Jacob (Eddie Ray Jackson) observes the Sabbath with his father Charles (Adrian Roberts) in PEN/MAN/SHIP at Magic Theatre through June 15. By Christina Anderson, directed by Ryan Guzzo Purcell.
In Review


3.5 out of 5 stars
3.5 out of 5 stars - 'Sweet Stuff'
Magic Theatre
Directed by Ryan Guzzo Purcell
Starring Eddie Ray Jackson, Tangela Large, Adrian Roberts and Tyee Tilghman
By Christina Anderson
Review by
Jacob (Eddie Ray Jackson) observes the Sabbath with his father Charles (Adrian Roberts) in PEN/MAN/SHIP at Magic Theatre through June 15. By Christina Anderson, directed by Ryan Guzzo Purcell.
Jacob (Eddie Ray Jackson) observes the Sabbath with his father Charles (Adrian Roberts) in PEN/MAN/SHIP at Magic Theatre through June 15. By Christina Anderson, directed by Ryan Guzzo Purcell.

“In the darkness, a world emerges.

We hear the wind bully the ocean: the Atlantic.

We hear the faint sound of a melody played on a small accordion.

In the darkness, we listen to the wind, the ocean, the faint melody.

The melody draws near.

On this night a whaling ship sails across the Atlantic.

It is bound for a country in Africa.”

So begin the stage directions for Christina Anderson’s new play, pen/man/ship, which just opened at the Magic Theatre. Pen/man/ship takes on material that I’ve never seen embodied in any other work. This smart script will take you places you’ve never been before.

The play is set on a sailing ship during the autumn of 1896, just after the U.S. Supreme Court decided Plessy v. Ferguson, a holding that remained in place until the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. The ship is bound for Liberia, which had been colonized by freed slaves with support from white leaders, including Abraham Lincoln, who saw it as an alternative to emancipation. Anderson’s research of the historical context is evident in every line. However, she doesn’t overwhelm you with historical detail, letting the characters steer the action.

The only passengers we see on the ship are Charles (Adrian Roberts), his son Jacob (Eddie Ray Jackson), and Ruby (Tangela Large), a woman who joined them at the last minute.

Charles is a class-conscious surveyor whose purpose for making the journey remains masked to the others. Whether holding Sabbath services or arguing with son Jacob, he retains his regal bearing. His deliberately measured speech as he intones his journal entries suggests an enormous need to control. Jacob is deferential, but locked in conflict with his father.  However, he’s not afraid of making the humorous aside, saying “Careful father – your hope is showing,” when Charles questions him too closely about his relationship with Ruby. The tension between the two propels much of the first act.

Ruby has a 500-watt smile that lights the stage in the first act. Unlike the others, she’s the free agent, motivated to build a new life in Liberia. Only she has the temerity to point out that Charles and his employers might not be as grand as he makes out, given that this is a  sailing ship, instead of a steamer. Ruby’s the decider, standing between these passengers. Her smile disappears in Act II, when the balance of power among the characters shifts. I was relieved to see the smile return during curtain call.

The only crew member we see is the soft spoken Cecil, beautifully played by Tyee Tilghman. Cecil is Charles’ only real friend – despite the yawning chasm of class and education. At the outset, we see Cecil standing aside with accordion in hand, not unlike the fiddler, in Fiddler on the Roof.

PEN/MAN/SHIP - Magic Theatre, San Francisco
Ruby (Tangela Large) and Jacob (Eddie Ray Jackson).

Scenic designer Angrette McCloskey turned the tiny thrust stage into the hold of a ship, with loosely connected lumber pieces working as a scrim that the audience sees through to the  ship’s deck outside. Dead center are two benches facing each other.

While the ship itself was spectacular, much of the action was spot welded to those two benches at center stage, with the result that at least one third of the house was unable to see at least one of the characters. Initially, I didn’t appreciate the stunning performance of Eddie Ray Jackson, because he didn’t face me for more than a few seconds until the second act.  Better blocking would easily resolve this.

Anderson speaks of wanting to write something about exceptionalism. This isn’t the narrow definition of exceptionalism in common usage, but a broader view that divides, rather than unites a people. In interviews, she speaks of connections between this material and the Trayvon Martin case. However, she avoids the heavy-handed dogmatism that prevents the audience from unwrapping this material on their own terms.

Pen/man/ship will startle, delight and make you think. Hopefully, it will  be produced again in the future. Nits aside, it’s a brilliant contribution to what has been an even-better-than-usual theatre season throughout the bay area.

Follow Stark Insider on Twitter and Facebook. Join our 11,000 subscribers who read SI on tablets and smartphones on Google Newsstand. Prefer video? Watch us on Amazon Prime or subscribe to Stark Insider on YouTube, the largest arts & travel channel in San Francisco.
Share with your friends

Previous articleUSB stick with Lightning connector scores $750K funding on Kickstarter
Next articleSex and Dinos and Rock & Roll: Triassic Parq
Cy Ashley Webb

Cy spent the ‘80’s as a bench scientist, the tech boom doing intellectual property law, and the first decade of the millennium, aspiring to be the world’s oldest grad student at Stanford where she is interested in political martyrdom. Presently, she enjoys writing for Stark Insider and the SF Examiner, hanging out at Palo Alto Children’s Theatre, and participating in various political activities. Democracy is not a spectator sport! Cy is a SFBATCC member.

  • The problem has been the focus on irrelevant arguments – some of which are actually unsupported by the evidence.

    1. ‘George Zimmerman (GZ) racially profiled Trayvon Martin (TM)’ There is no evidence of this.

    2. ‘GZ disobeyed an order by the police’ * The civilian dispatcher, Sean Noffke, testified that he did not give GZ an order and, in fact, he, like his fellow dispatchers, are trained not make comments that sound like commands. * Noffke also testified under cross that, as a result of his asking GZ which way TM was going, GZ could have reasonably interpreted this as being asked to follow Martin. * It is also not a crime in Florida to disregard a comment made by a civilian dispatcher.

    3. ‘GZ got out of his car’ Not a crime on public property and not negligent, either.

    4. ‘GZ followed TM’ Again, anyone can follow anyone on a public street unless the followee has obtained a restraining order against the follower and even there, the RS only places time, place, and manner restrictions on the person enjoined.

    5. ‘GZ wasn’t really injured’ * Under Florida’s self-defense laws, one doesn’t have to be injured AT ALL to use deadly force * No one is required to refrain from defending himself while another is engaged in or attempting to commit a felony.

    6. ‘TM is dead through no fault of his own’ * If you believe that TM assaulted GZ, then he IS dead as a result of his own actions.

    7. ‘GZ could have left’ * Under Florida law, there is not a duty to withdraw rather than use deadly force * TM was straddling GZ so how the latter was supposed to leave the scene is unanswered.

    8. ‘GZ was armed and TM wasn’t’ * One’s fists can be considered weapons and can result in severe bodily harm or death. * GZ was legally carrying a weapon * There is no requirement under the law that the same weapon be used by the assailant * A homeowner can kill an intruder whether or not he has been threatened * Those that attack cannot feign surprise if they are met with superior firepower.

    9. ‘Stand Your Ground!’ * SYG is NOT at issue in this trial. * The defense is a classic self-defense case.

    10. ‘Black men NEVER get to use SYG!’ * Wrong

    11. ‘GZ is a man and TM was a boy!’ * As if ‘boys’ don’t commit murder, rape, and assault everyday in this country.