Friday, May 30, 2014

When Wells Run Dry: A Review of Christina Anderson’s pen/man/ship by Wanda Sabir

Perhaps it’s not a good idea to jump on a ship whose destination one is uncertain? Unfortunately for Africans in the Diaspora, our ancestors were not given a choice, but the crew members, along with Ruby Heard and Jacob Boyd, volunteered for Charles Boyd’s mission—he an unscrupulous and unreliable navigator (read narrator) whose quest for power leads him to participate in another illegal transport, this time New Afrikans, in a reverse trade route, centered in economic gain just like that first 300 or so years earlier.
Playwright, Christina Anderson

Christina Anderson’s pen/man/ship which opened theatrically at the Magic Theatre late May and continues most fittingly into the Juneteenth season, is set on a ship in the middle of a Transatlantic horror in the late nineteenth century. Legal slavery is over, but echoes of the lash still haunt those aboard a ship headed for Liberia. No one except Sir Charles who hires the men and the ship, and later his son, Jacob Boyd, know the true reason for the trip—a reverse passage in more ways than one. 15 men are the crew and one woman who is leaving behind a country and a way of life—Southern and American which hinders her freedom, if not stifles it all together. She is on the run, but then so are most of those aboard the ship—Cecil, one of the crew, stands apart with his accordion—its wailing voice at times rivalling the sea.

Imagine a penal colony of black people where those found guilty are shipped off or away from family, friends and loved ones in America to Africa.

The whaling sets sail September-October 1896—Did Captain Ahab have to pawn his ship after the fiasco with Moby Dick? Was Charles Boyd the meal, his continued refusal to leave his room not arrogance, rather a whale’s indigestion? Maybe the continued biblical reference refers to Jonah? cast:
Eddie Ray Jackson, Tagela Large, Adrian Roberts, Tyee Tilghman

Why take the scenic route to Africa, when it is not the journey rather the destination which is the aim, or is it? Is this the reason why shrewd businessman, land surveyor, Sir Charles Boyd charters a ship which used sails rather than steam? Is this why he tosses his fate on the elements, especially Tempest? Does he believe he has the winning chip?

Wrapped in pride, actor Adrian Roberts’s character wears his tattered robe to glory as his ship sinks. What a fool. When he falls no one mourns him, his ship log where he dutifully keeps the only record of his thoughts, fails to solicit forgiveness or pity or even love for those he has wronged. Even at his most abhorrent, Robert’s character’s stoic acceptance of his solitude, no isolation, does nothing to arouse pity or compassion in the crew, his son, Jacob,  shipmate, Ruby or eventually Cedric, his one friend. Perhaps this is why he keeps the log; there he can revise the truth until it fits its quarters.

Why are we unmoved by any of the man’s tribulations, when he has much to pity in his life: his recent loss of his wife, his weak and spineless son, Jacob, plus his fear of the journey to Africa, despite his bravado? Is it in the way Robert’s portrays him that leaves us so cold?  

Charles’s continued alcoholic stupor buoys his temper and seeming grasp of the wheel, when with each inebriated Sunday service his grip on the fragile spiritual mirage he maintains steadily vanishes.  
In a powerful scene when Cecil pour out Charles’s last bottle of rum, the drunken man licks his hands as he wipes the liquor from the bench, yet leaves a huge puddle of gin undisturbed on the floor . . .  Are we to believe his arrogance keeps him from taking this step into our waiting hearts? Okay, I thought to myself, get on your knees Charles and lick the floor, but he let all the beverage sink into the floorboards while withdrawal symptoms made his body begin to tremble as he hallucinated.  A true drunk, a man who has been drinking for 20 years each evening would have wallowed and thus earned my favor. At a certain point, one’s body takes over and one cannot control one’s impulses.

Yes, Charles is the beast he abhors or calls his crew.

If there are tumultuous waves at sea, Charles is the ill wind that blows harm. Stuck between the pages of the bible, he reads the verses which fortify his position. He is not looking for truth, just absolution and grace—to receive, not to give.

Even when he stumbles bleeding from a chest wound inflicted on deck into his cabin one night in an earlier scene, the concern is for the man overboard, whom we hear is the youngest crew member, well-liked, a good boy now gone forever. Would that the man overboard been Charles, not Monty Samuels.

The voyage is intense and long, yet Charles remains unmoved—stoic and taciturn, he starts and ends his journey none the wiser. Perhaps it is his inebriated state that is the reason for this inappropriate response? It could also be the way pen/man/ship is directed or Charles is interpreted. Whatever the reason, the character shifts not in his perspective except on paper in his log—it is an intellectual change when what is needed is more blood and real pain— a lot happens on this journey, much of it avoidable if not for Charles’s presence.

Charles is a stiff, inflexible man, whose ideas about women, men and blackness are already decided when he boards the ship and keeps a distance between himself and the men, whom he sees beneath him. He stays in his cabin drinking and on Sundays reading select portions from the bible and singing hymns with his dutiful son. He finds Ruby’s questions and ideas contrary to his about religion and women her way to undermine his power.

Imagine a black crew traveling to Africa to establish a penal colony there for wayward Negros at home? Anderson’s writing is charged as Ruby and Jacob spar, he at times uncertain as to his allegiance—does he side with Dad or his girl? Is she really his girl?

Ruby belongs only to herself. Doubt her calling card, and with it she raises questions, heightens all encounters with a judicious clarity fitting her mounting role as mistress or siren of the sea. Tangela Large’s Ruby is riveting and powerful. She never trembles even when Charles stands imposingly over her and threatens to break her bodily. Her Ruby is a perfect match for Adrian Robert’s Charles Boyd.

Ruby is the fly that eludes the swatter. She buzzes and buzzes. Mysterious until almost the end, we wonder why she is on board with all these men headed for a place known only in the imagination—homeland, true for some, for others a place of danger, especially for a woman alone. What is her story? What made her appeal to Jacob to let her board his father’s ship?

Ruby is the linchpin that holds the board pieces in place or lets them scatter and fall. The men love her and she honors and respects their trust. She is flirtatious and wise, innocent and often indiscreet. She pushes Charles, then holds a mirror to this man he is not anxious to see.

The journey is an opportunity for Jacob to grow up and be a man, Ruby to find true freedom from fear, Cecil to know his beauty and Charles to come to grips with the man he has been running from for the past twenty years. In the capable hands of the cast, Ryan Guzzo’s direction and the skilled storytelling inherent in Pen/Man/Ship, each meet his or her goals.

Charles drinks to forget or perhaps he drinks to remember, or maybe the alcoholic stupor he lives in is how he survives the shipwreck. As the waves crash and the vessel is tossed –the natural elements find a parallel universe inside the characters.

I love plays which have at their center, strong black women and Christina Anderson’s Ruby,  a brilliant red jewel, is such. From the moment she joins the two men, Charles and Jacob at their Sunday ritual and invited to share a scripture, reinterprets it—to their horror; the gauntlet is drawn and the challenge taken up between the two stronger energies on this voyage.

Who will win, and at what cost? Is Charles, a land surveyor, willing to sacrifice all he has planned and kill them all? His refusal to speak to the men after the tragic death of the youngest shipmate or crew member, the men’s refusal to lift the sails until he does and Ruby’s appointment as spokesperson for them makes for a dicey plank both Jacob and Cecil tread, Jacob son and lover, Cecil crew member yet Jacob’s friend.

How will it all end? Will the great whale be captured or will it surrender?

When she first arrives on board, Ruby speaks of how the ship’s smell makes her ill. Jacob says it’s the whale blubber, blood and sweat.  Charles says the ship full of men is no place for a woman and wonders over the course of the journey about this woman’s audacity. How dare she think she is equal to him with as much right to express herself intellectually as he?!

Actor, Eddie Ray Jackson’s Jacob is the dutiful son and undecided boyfriend, trying to keep the peace. Tyee Tilghman’s Cecil with his accordion is perhaps the most interesting of the four characters with speaking roles on the ship—we hear about the captain and other mates, but they have no tangible presence in the story. Cecil like Jacob brings his loved one on board, his captured in the “box,” what he calls his accordion. Like a ventriloquist, he seems most articulate when communicating with it. It is the voice of his soul—it is when playing that he forgets himself and is truly beautiful.

Notions of civilization and beauty and black people, whom in a certain way Charles wants to escape or at least contain, Ruby is running toward, while Jacob stands immobile trapped by a deed committed in err that binds him to his father. I am not clear what he did exactly, visit a brothel? Whatever it was his father kept him from being charged and now he is aboard the ship to pay his debt which broke the family coffers, or so says his dad, Charles.

Jacob’s sentence is indeterminate; Ruby is also an escapee—running from a society that treats her people as less than human, only to face similar judgment aboard Charles’s ship.

When one enters the theatre, we are immediately thrust into the interior of the ship—in the bowels so to speak where the foul odors mingle with historic lineage and legacies, much unresolved.

Just beyond the confined spaced is a ladder leading to the deck—We hear laugher as the waves rise . . . silence at night as Charles walks the emptied floor above. Both Jacob and Ruby sleep within view, Charles’s cabin between theirs. Cecil bunks with 14 other men. The captain is also elsewhere.

Suddenly the deck appears in front of the audience as Jacob and Ruby speak to the men or Cecil serenades us with a song. There are provisions tucked under rafters, Jacob’s sketchbook where he draws pictures of the men and the bibles he and his father hide inside cubbyholes. When the play starts Charles stands on the deck light shining on him, his arms outstretched—is he king? At the end, this same light returns, yet a few elements have shifted, powerful elements. What does the closing light mean? Why is Charles still its centerpiece?

The Magic Theatre is located at Ft. Mason Center, 2 Marina Blvd., Building D, 3rd Floor, San Francisco. Call (415) 441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre,org The play runs, Tuesdays, June 3 and 10, 7 p.m., evenings Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. with weekend matinees on Sundays at 2:30 with a 7 p.m. show as well Sunday, June 1. Tickets are $20-60 with $5 off for seniors and educators. All student tickets are $20.

Free Performance in Oakland

There is a free performance at Laney College Theatre, 900 Fallon in Oakland, Tuesday, June 3, 2014, 1:30 p.m.

Virgin Play Series

The Magic is also presenting the 2014 Martha Heasley Cox Virgin Play Series on Monday nights (6/2 & 6/9, 7 p.m. at ACT’s Costume Shop). June 16, 6 p.m. Sojourners by Mfoniso Udofia is read at the Commonwealth Club of California, 595 Market Street (between 1st and 2nd); Montgomery BART Station. Visit

Listen to an interview with playwright Christina Anderson,
Starts around: 101.1 (title link too)

Listen to an interview with members of the cast in pen/man/ship:



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