As long as the play and the production, which has been smartly directed by Chay Yew, hold tight to that center, it floats as few recent plays have. Its story about a black mother (Myra Lucretia Taylor), named Patricia but commonly referred to as Pickle, and her almost-a-woman daughter, H.J. (Kianné Muschett), coping with the twin specters of religion and the environment should not be fresh enough to be affecting. And the use of an outsider who’s truly connected with the land and the sea - the Ethiopian “e-God-ogist” (a priest and protestor in the making) Abebe (William Jackson Harper), who’s staying with the two while he’s in college - should seem corny rather than keen.
But Corthron has aligned their problems and personalities so tightly any potentially devastating looseness never has a chance. Pickle, still smarting from the death of her youngest child, Carve, has been rendered psychologically inert, and hears voices (some of which - literally - come from the kitchen cabinets). H.J., named after escaped slave author Harriet Jacobs, is suspicious of God, and won’t be convinced by either her mother or their live-in. Abebe protested a megadam in his own country, and is leading the charges against one Nestle is determined to build in America. All this proves, even before the end of the first act, a powerful setup for alliances for and against the various abutting concerns, as each person tries to maintain his or her beliefs in the face of almost continuous assaults.
As the action is set against a debilitating drought (going on some two months), the stakes are high for them all. But Corthron is up to the challenge, and the minute erosions and reshapings of beliefs and actions becomes jet propulsion for the second act, which is set in the aftermath of those decisions some seven years later. The introduction here of an “anti-Abebe,” Tich (Keith Eric Chappelle), H.J.’s once-and-future fling, who works in a controversial industry, allows the playwright an even deeper look at the issues on which her play is constructed.
That this particular specific is introduced so late is one of the reasons the play is sometimes more apt to jar than jolt. Its subject and the characters’ political leanings let too much pass unanswered in the first act, which sets the second up for predictable confrontations, rife with spitting recriminations, yelling, and throwing things (including, of course, a full water jug). This puts an irreparable dent in what should be a smoothly running narrative about the complex relationship between people on two continents with their rapidly vanishing natural resources. The kind of pointed preaching in which Abebe engages in the second act seems to belong more to the playwright than the character, whose tactics had been established as considerably different.
Leaping forward a period of time as long as seven years also gives the first act’s concerns too much time to deflate. Pickle has progressed beyond her early grief, but we learn little about the woman she’s become; Abebe’s development is related in dialogue more than in Harper’s performance, which is bright and engaging, but generally one-note; and the fifth character of Tay (Joshua King), a 10-year-old white orphan who leads a troubled life and seems to be a major early guidepost of the story, vanishes almost completely, taking with him the internalized troubles that starkly contrast the others’ globe-spanning concerns.
Thoroughly charming performances from everyone, especially Taylor (in high-art wistfulness mode) and Muschett (who proves here to be a mistress of the gently cracking resolve), help smooth the impact a great deal. So do Kris Stone’s lovely set, in which Pickle’s kitchen looks like an island on an endless lake (an artificial version of which we see briefly at the start of Act II), and Ben Stanton’s lights, which alternately suggest dryness and drenching of several kinds. Yew’s direction is luscious and emphatic, getting full value out of several crucial set-piece special effects, but doesn’t neglect the more intimate feelings on which the story turns.
It’s Corthron, however, who provides the most specialness, even amid the clunkier moments. She weaves together attitudes and allusions deriving from sources as varied as Southern Negro spirituals, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and John Lee Hooker, giving each character a distinct voice that unites with the others as part of a sparkling, musical dialect that has no easy analogues. (Tarell Alvin McCraney, the author of The Brother/Sister Plays and Wig Out!, is close, if a bit less ethereal.) When these all sound together, especially in the literal and figurative baptism scenes sprinkled throughout the play, the melodies are truly absorbing.
If A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick as a whole doesn’t quite reach that level, it’s only because it tries to do so much that some leaks are inevitable. (References to the Confederacy, some of the intricacies of Ethopian and Italian politics, and Abebe’s convoluted romantic entanglements could safely be diluted or excised altogether.) But when the play is waxing its most lyrical, whether about activism of the environmental or evangelical varieties, it’s one of the most refreshing of the season to date.
A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick