“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.
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.