A man loses his soul at sea in "pen/man/ship."
Christina Anderson's richly imagined period piece takes us aboard an epic maritime voyage from America to Liberia in 1896. The densely plotted racial and class histories of her characters give this brave and gripping new play a sense of depth and mystery that's quite compelling. Shot through with elegant writing and astute performances in its world premiere at San Francisco's Magic Theatre, "pen/man/ship" nevertheless drifts off course in its second act and sacrifices some of the power of the experience. And yet it's hard not to cheer for Magic Theatre, which is making a comeback built on its genius for launching just such intrepid new voices.
Anderson embarks on a sly study in identity and politics on a 19th-century ship bound for Africa. All of the passengers on this ship, a rotted out whaling vessel that smells of butchery, are black. Some dream of coming home to Africa, and others fear the chaos of uncharted seas. At first it seems as if the well-heeled businessman Charles (a regal Adrian Roberts) is the captain of the ship. Burning with scorn for the common man, he has insulated himself from the rest of humanity with his wealth and stature. No one rates a very high estimation in his eyes, least of all Jacob (Eddie Ray Jackson), his son, who is bound to his father by a rigid sense of duty and religion.
The playwright navigates the power dynamics between the three main characters with great finesse in a compelling first act that isn't afraid of lulls in the action. Intelligently directed by Ryan Guzzo Purcell, the narrative unfolds at a steady pace that evokes the rhythm of a long voyage. Angrette McCloskey's stunning set, an ark of reeds that suggests both a seafaring vessel and a cage, grounds the ambiguous play in the concrete.
Almost everything outside the bones of the ship and the crashes of the waves (lush sound design by Sara Huddleston) is fluid and unknowable in this universe. That's part of the intensity of the first act, trying to figure out why Charles loathes women, why his son stands by him and what demons chased Ruby away from her home in the Jim Crow South.
Roberts colors Charles with a provocative combination of integrity and hatefulness. Trapped below decks, pen in hand, he keeps a journal of his passage with little but his bottle of gin to keep him company. He is not a personable sort and only the gentle-hearted crewman Cecil (a deft Tyee Tilghman) can stand him.
Large is memorable as the sole woman aboard. Raised to scrape and toady to white people, Ruby comes into her own with the promise of building a new life in Africa. Large nails her rage as well as her thrilling sense of discovery as she realizes that there are many men who will look to her to lead them to safety. Jackson etches a complicated character with nuance so that Jacob's changes of heart never seem strained. All of the characters are buffeted by the storms of fear and greed and violence as "pen/man/ship" gains speed.
If the drama never quite achieves the explosive emotional crescendo it seems to be reaching for, it may be because the playwright has not yet fully sketched out the arcs of her central characters. It's unclear where the turning points are, for example, in Jacob's quest to become his own man or Ruby's embrace of her bravery. The play closes with an unforgettable tableau, a black man coming back to Africa in shackles, but the journey to that image isn't yet fully realized.
By Christina Anderson,
presented by Magic Theatre
Through: June 15
Where: Building D, Fort
Mason Center, San Francisco
Running time: 2 hours,