April 10th, 2010

La Loge

A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick

Years ago, in Boston, Ellen and I saw a play called Breath, Boom by Kia Corthron.  It was unsentimental, intelligent, well-written, feminist in the best way.  It was a window on a world where strong, intelligent teens fall into crime because their other choices are so limited, and where all actions have consequences.  Her controlling metaphor was fireworks, and she manipulated it brilliantly.  Fireworks--and the protagonist Prix's love of fireworks--stood for beauty and violence, for control and lack of control, for fury and, finally, for redemption.

So, when Ellen found tickets for Kia Corthron's new A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick on TDF, we leapt upon them with small cries of joy. 

For the first act, everything was ducky.  The set is lovely:  a well-used kitchen in a 50's tract house in Mississippi, believable down to the hodgepodge of family pictures and magnets on the fridge.  The acting is masterful--especially Myra Lucretia Taylor as Pickles, a nurse whose father, husband, and son were drowned in Katrina and William Jackson Harper as Abebe, an Ethiopian student who is boarding with her while he studies ecology and theology at the local university.  The dialogue was sharp, the humor was broad but not too broad, the didactic intent of the play was clear, but so much a part of the characters and their situation that I was happy to ride with it.  There's nothing wrong with a serious play having a serious message, as long as it is artfully and dramatically presented.  And water is an important subject and also makes a useful and flexible metaphor, right?

Maybe too flexible.  Instead of just showing up here and there, when necessary, to point up a moment or underline an emotion, water is everywhere in this play.  The characters desire it and fear it, need it and reject it, and they talk about it in nearly every line of dialogue.  Even the characters are at sea, as it were .  Pickles floats in and out of a past where her son was alive.  Her daughter H.J. flounders in survivor's guilt and anger at her mother's optional approach to reality.  Abebe fluctuates between wanting to save souls and wanting to save the environment.  I'm not entirely sure how a little white boy traumatized into silence by watching his father kill his entire family and then himself fits into the water pattern, but he fit into the "orphans of a storm" pattern and contributed to the "actions have consequences" theme and the "racism is complicated" theme.  I was sure that by the end of Act 2, he, along with all the themes and patterns and schemes Corthron introduced in Act 1, would come together in a final, complex, emotionally and intellectually satisfying moment.

Didn't happen.  There are too many themes, too many ideas, too many dream sequences and magical characters with parallel lives.  Too much preaching--I now know more details about the ecological enormities the Nestle Company has perpetrated upon the world in its quest to supply those who can afford it with designer water in pretty plastic bottles than I ever expected to know.  Too many plot threads.  The little boy disappears, to be replaced by the daughter's boyfriend, who pretty much exists to be lectured at by an older, but not significantly wiser, Abebe.  Pickle's ghosts are replaced by her migraines, which give her inexplicable visions of beaches (surrounded by water, of course).  And the coherent, witty, real dialogue of Act 1 pretty much disappears as well, replaced with didactic rants.

It's too bad.  There's a good play in there somewhere.  Even the mess it is has moments of true beauty and truth and power that more than made up for the preaching and the bits that didn't quite fit in smoothly.  The end of the first act, for instance, is a gradual and almost unbearable crescendo of emotional violence ending in a healing catharsis.  And Corthron can't write an ungraceful line of dialogue, not even when she's doling out facts about Nestle and mega-dams and bottling plants.  I loved the way William Jackson Harper took the character of Abebe--a kind of truth-telling Holy Fool--who a lesser actor might have made a mugging idiot and gave him dignity and dimension.  And I gotta say I loved Corthron for going ahead and writing the play she needed to write even though she had to know that water conservation isn't the easiest dramatic subject on God's green earth.

So no, I didn't think A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick was good.  But I do think it was worth seeing.