In 1791, a woman on a slave ship was diagnosed with smallpox. In order to isolate the disease, she was tied to a chair and thrown overboard. Of the 142 slaves on the ship, 121 were delivered on arrival. In economic terms, then, the solution to the potential outbreak was a success, with one minor exception: the captain, the notorious pirate and slave trader James De Wolf (Robert Hogan)—who would eventually become the richest man in Rhode Island—remarked that he regretted the loss of so good a chair.
“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” Stephen Dedalus says in Joyce’s Ulysses, a sentiment that is likely to be shared by the characters who inhabit Naomi Wallace’s The Liquid Plain. On the docks of Bristol, Rhode Island, two runaway slaves, Adjua (Kristolyn Lloyd) and her lover Dembi (Ito Aghayere), rescue a white sailor, Cranston (Michael Izquierdo), from drowning. It takes a while for Cranston to admit that he witnessed De Wolf’s act of capitalist violence, but nobody here seems interested in recovering the past. The reason for this is more apparent with De Wolf and Cranston, who are complicit in the brutality of slavery, but Ms. Wallace implies that recovery can also be damaging to history’s victims: though we eventually find out that Adjua’s sister was the murdered slave, she refuses to speak her name, at least before The Liquid Plain‘s audience. Of course, the act of naming is often an act of oppression—think of the way Christian Europeans applied the misnomer “Mohammedanism” to Islam—but here it can also be an act of betrayal, establishing an intimacy with others that has not been earned and offering them partial ownership in an experience to which they have no right.
In her notes to the play, Ms. Wallace writes that the accents should not be “realistic,” that they should be spoken “as though remembered from another time.” Indeed, there is a fogginess that hangs over The Liquid Plain, setting a tone that allows us to engage poetically with our past in a way that is impossible in works that aim for strict verisimilitude (Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, to pick a recent, notable example). Penetrating this fog can be difficult for the characters as well as the audience and the author, and Ms. Aghayere brilliantly plays Dembi’s cagey defensiveness, her eyes dazzling, suggesting the kind of wounds that cannot be articulated onstage or perhaps even in language. But as we know from Harold Pinter, silence is not always literal: Johnny Ramey, playing the Black captain Liverpool Joe, is also excellent in his nervous, genial logorrhea, reminding us that excessive talk can be just as evasive as no talk at all.
At some point, Cranston gets a worm in his leg, one that won’t leave him in the almost fifty-year span of The Liquid Plain‘s action and which occasionally wakes up to enact its revenge on his flesh: the “ole bitch” is the “most faithful gal in my life,” he jokes. This may be an obvious metaphor, but it works, as does the play itself, a worm waking from the nightmare of history to remind us of who we are and how we got here.