It has taken 10 years for Ilesa Duncan and David Barr III to adapt MacArthur Fellow Charles R. Johnson’s “Middle Passage” — the 1990 National Book Award winner for fiction — for the stage. But the result of their labors — Pegasus Theatre Chicago’s mightily impressive, wholly engrossing world premiere of “Rutherford’s Travels” — is indisputable evidence that their time was well spent.
When: Through Dec. 4
Where: Pegasus Theatre Chicago at Chicago Dramatists,1105 W. Chicago
Run time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission
To be sure there are many vivid, moving tales of the Middle Passage — the term used to describe the stage in the triangular exchange by which millions of Africans were shipped to the New World as part of the Atlantic slave trade. There also are countless stories about calamitous voyages at sea in which prison-like ships, overseen by cruel or crazy captains, become the target of oppressed and mutinous sailors. And there are numerous picaresque sagas about adventurous young men who were either impressed into service, or naively headed out to sea as stowaways in search of a better life, only to endure nightmarish experiences.
Johnson’s story has elements of all these narrative lines. But most of all it is a work of moral complexity — far more nuanced than a story of good versus evil, or black versus white. While full of nearly unimaginable horrors, it also possesses elements of unexpected comedy and quirky romance, with characters who very often defy easy stereotyping. And all this is captured to riveting (and entertaining) effect in the Pegasus production, which might well be the most polished and ambitious work this company has produced during its long history.
Set in 1830, the play tells of the final voyage of the Republic, an illegal American slave ship, as chronicled by Rutherford Calhoun (a Candide-like turn by the talented Breon Arzell). A newly freed slave with a mischievous nature, who was educated by his master, Rev. Chandler (Nelson Rodriguez), Rutherford, 23, flees the Illinois farm where he and his irritatingly righteous older brother, Jackson (a spot-on Andrew Malone), worked, and heads to that den of iniquity, New Orleans.
Once there, he tries to get a job but must turn to petty thievery to survive, and along the way he gets into trouble with the African-American underworld of that city, including the all-powerful, larger-than-life “godfather,” Papa Zeringue (Dareen Jones), and his massive enforcer (played by Osiris Khepera). Rutherford gets into further trouble by flirting with Isadora (an altogether unforgettable turn by Naima Hebrail Kidjo), the prim but shrewd and alluring schoolteacher, who is hellbent on reforming him and making him her husband — something that is definitely not part of his plan.
As it happens, Isadora has made a deal with Zeringue: She will pay off Rutherford’s debts in exchange for marrying her. To escape such blackmail he sneaks onto the Republic, which he only later discovers is a slave ship. There, under the fearsome, unpredictable Captain Falcon (a perfectly warped turn by Gary Houston), he is once again condemned to work for no pay, and then, once the ship’s “slave cargo” is loaded with members of the reputedly fearsome Allmuseri tribe, he is pressed into spying on these traumatized and abused Africans, with the captain’s pilfering of a terrifying “god” figure adding to the terror.
Rutherford thus finds himself a man in the middle. He is accepted by some of his fellow sailors, who are white, including the decent First Mate, Cringle (fine work by Rodriguez), and the mostly inebriated cook, Josiah Squibb (a very funny Ron Quade). And he is appalled by the treatment of the Africans — including their charismatic leader, Ngonyama (Malone, a man of great physical grace and intensity), and Baleka (Tiffany Renee Johnson, a dancer of delicate beauty), who he eventually tries to help. A slave rebellion, as well as a mutiny by the crew (enhanced by Heather Chrisler and David Fehr’s zesty portrayals), become the ultimate tests of loyalty and conscience. And before it’s all over there are many reversals and many surprises, none of which should be revealed here.
Helping to bring “Rutherford’s Travels” to vivid life are the propulsive, episodic script, Duncan’s ideal casting and fluid direction, Nicole J. Clarke-Springer’s pulsing choreography, and composer-music director Shawn Wallace’s expert blend of sea chanties and African rhythms. Though staged in the intimate Chicago Dramatists space, Elyse Balogh’s handsome nautical set, Josh Wroblewski’s moody lighting, Sarah Putts’ stormy sound and Melissa Perkins’ superb character-defining costumes give the production — a tale of transformation and survival — the epic quality it deserves.