BWW Review: Race, Religion, Elitism - Just a Few Issues Portland Playhouse Takes on in PEN/MAN/SHIP
In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the "separate but equal" decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, codifying racism into modern American life. It's also the year Charles Boyd, an African-American surveyor, leads an all African-American crew on a ship sailing to Liberia in Christina Anderson's PEN/MAN/SHIP, now playing at Portland Playhouse.
This powerful drama explores, race relations, religion, elitism, and many more issues in a quest to "bring darkness into the light." Because once you reveal darkness, it loses its power.
Here's the setup. Charles Boyd is traveling with his son Jacob to Liberia for a reason that we don't yet understand. While he asserts that he's the one in charge, he prefers to stay in his cabin, never mingling with members of the crew or even the captain. The only things he mingles with are his Bible and his bottle of gin.
However, Jacob has a surprise that threatens Charles's command and his composure -- a woman named Ruby Heard. Ruby has no use for the Bible (or the gin), and she isn't afraid to call it like she sees it, even if that means calling Charles out for his overbearing behavior, his elitism, and his alcoholism. You can guess how well he likes that.
When Ruby gains control over the ship after a tragedy occurs and the captain disappears, the stage is set for an epic battle.
The play is symbolic and powerful. Even though the setting is 1896, the core theme of destroying darkness by exposing it is timeless. And certainly the issues of racial discrimination and elitism are just as relevant today. PEN/MAN/SHIP is also exquisitely written. I wished I'd brought a notebook so I could write things down, especially pretty much everything Ruby said.
The cast was also exquisite. AdrIan Roberts created the role of the hard-headed, imposing, but still infinitely vulnerable Charles at PEN/MAN/SHIP's world premiere in San Francisco. His performance in this production is masterful, as you would expect from someone who has been engaging with and refining a character for a couple of years now.
I was especially impressed with Andrea Whittle as Ruby Heard. She is a force be reckoned with! Whittle is a recent graduate of the Portland Playhouse Acting Apprentice program, but she holds her own on the stage with an actor of Roberts' experience just as well as her character holds her own with the overbearing presence of Charles.
DeLance Minefee and Vin Shambry were also well cast as, respectively, Jacob (Charles's son) and Cecil (an accordion-playing member of the crew who provides company and comfort to Charles after everyone else has deserted him).
Finally, the set was very cool. There was a shallow pool in the center, which represented Charles's cabin, where most of the action took place. Aside from providing real water sounds, it served to remind the audience that even just a few inches of water is still enough to drown in.
Overall, I thought PEN/MAN/SHIP was excellent. See it now through March 5. Details and tickets here.