Painful Truths

Oregon Shakespeare Festival wades in where angels fear to tread

Darleen Ortega | 9/10/2013, 4:25 p.m.
"It's hard to imagine a setting for a play more challenging and complex than the slave trade. It's a history ...
Dembi (Kimberly Scott, left) and Adjua (June Carryl) find a book in the pocket of the man (Danforth Comins) they've pulled from the sea in ‘The Liquid Plain,’ now playing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Photo by Jenny Graham. Jenny Graham/Courtesy Oregon Shakespeare Festival

It's hard to imagine a setting for a play more challenging and complex than the slave trade. It's a history that we as a culture carry in our collective DNA; our very economic system was built, quite literally, on the backs of human beings who had been kidnapped and transported under unimaginable conditions into lives that explicitly denied their status as human beings. We have barely begun to scratch the surface in our collective consciousness about the implications of this past for our present.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has waded in where angels fear to tread with a new play this season, "The Liquid Plain."

Part of a cycle of plays commissioned to explore moments of change in United States history, the play is set in 1791 in Bristol, Rhode Island, an important slave seaport, and explores a complex set of connections between, most prominently, two runaway slaves, a white sailor, and a notorious white slave trader. Its players guide the audience into moments of deep recognition that transcend some elements of the work that don't quite satisfy.

The story revolves around Adjua and Dembi, lovers who have escaped slavery and are eking out a living in the seaport while trying to arrange for passage to Africa. They find the body of an apparently drowned white man who returns to consciousness as they are removing his clothes in order to sell them.

The man, who they dub "Thomas," is suffering from amnesia, and for a brief time the balance of power is that he works for the two lovers as he grapples with his own unstable consciousness. But as his self-awareness increases, so does his attraction to Adjua and, accordingly, his conflicts with Dembi.

It turns out that "Thomas" is really a sailor named Cranston and his drowning was a failed murder attempt after he gave grand jury testimony against De Woolf, a slave ship captain. The play explores the connections between these characters as Adjua, Dembi, and Cranston plan their departure from the port and negotiate the balance of power between them.

The play contains a host of intriguing themes. How did African people of ingenuity survive in a context where the stakes were so high and nearly all of the options involved unimaginable risk? The play offers the opportunity to sit with those questions and dwell on what it meant for people like this to love and dream of a life together.

Adjua and Dembi exist in the interstices of a brutal culture and port economy that depends on trading people just like them. That people like them managed to love and aspire in a context that denied them the right or even the capability of doing those things is a reality worth contemplating. The play also contains some plot twists which I'll leave for you to discover but that locate the story of these two in some larger concerns of identity.

The story of Cranston doesn't fare quite as well. He and DeWoolf are inspired by two historical figures with a curious story. DeWoolf is based on a slaver known as "Captain Jim" who died a wealthy man after bringing an estimated 10,000 Africans to slavery in the New World.