UCI Play Explores American Racism, Through a Glass Darkly

Scene from The Liquid Plain
Scene from The Liquid Plain
Paul R. Kennedy

Black History Month doesn't officially begin until Feb. 1, but for Orange County theater, it came a bit early. In early January, South Coast Repertory mounted a production of Matthew Lopez' Obie-Award-winning play The Whipping Man, set in the turbulent final days of the Civil War and featuring a slave-owner returning from the battlefield and encountering two newly emancipated men. Closing tonight is the riveting Roger Guenveur Smith, bringing his one-man Rodney King show to the Segerstrom's Off-Center Festival (seriously, just see it.)

And opening tonight, is the California premiere of Naomi Wallace's The Liquid Plain. , which is part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's ambitious United States history cycle, American Revolutions, and was the winner of the 2012 Horton Foote Prize for Promising New American play.

According to the official press release (and who are we to argue with those things?) the play "explores sexuality and the violence of the slave trade as we meet two runaway slaves on the docks of an 18th Century Rhode Island port. Finding love and a nearly drowned man, the mysteries of (their) identities come to light, as do the painful truths about the past and the present, which flow into the next generation."

Wallace is one of the better playwrights of the past 20 years, writing plays about normal people set against the most extraordinary backdrops. If you've ever seen or read her collection In the Heart of America, you know the buzz.

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UCI drama professor Gary Busby saw The Liquid Plain two years ago at the Oregon Shakes and was so blown away that he felt compelled to ask to produce it. And he selected Jaye Austin Williams, who received her doctorate in directing last year from UCI, to direct it.

Here's some 411 on the play from both of them:

OC Weekly (Joel Beers): What drew you to this play? Gary Busby: I was incredibly moved by the timelessness of the story, the struggle of these people working out, in a dramatically fashioned historical context, the vicissitudes of the nightmare with which the Slave Trade continues to disturb the human family. I sat breathless for the entire length of the play. It is a poignant, tragic, moving, disturbing, and, ultimately satisfying story.

Jaye Williams: I was drawn to its focus on the Transatlantic Slave trade. The fact that it is set in Bristol, Rhode Island allows for a pinpointed meditation on a condition that is not so pinpointable, so I was intrigued to engage with its particular point of attack: one of the industry's most profitable ports of call, and the fact that that port was not in the South.

The play is set in the past, but what does it say, if anything, about contemporary America? Jaye Willaims: Ferguson, Missouri is yet another in a continuing series of moments that remind us all too well that racial slavery has an afterlife. There is a way the Black being is marked, and mapped,in a sense, to a locus of degradation and violence at which state-sanctioned and other violences direct their aggressions. So the play, and in particular, how we are realizing it in our production at UCI, speaks to the difficulties of Black presence and cohesion in contexts where there is a virtual absence of blackness.

What do you hope audiences take from the play?

Jaye Williams I hope it will help them recognize the vastness of what we are most often discouraged from thinking about. That recognition begins with being disabused of the notion that we are in a postracial, diverse world, and thereby prepared to talk about any and everything but race, racism, and in particular, antiblack racism and when we do, we do so in a multiracial, multicultural, and therefore, all-inclusive way. This is deeply troublesome to me...To think the Atlantic through the lens of racial slavery is to begin to really bring history into focus. It is the kind of potential for thinking deeply, soberly and vibrantly about history -- that I am unflinchingly committed to. It is what informs me as an artist and a scholar. It is the portal into which we are inviting the audience with our production of Naomi Wallace's play. And it is where we can begin to reckon with how the aftermath of racial slavery continues on in our everyday speech, our actions and non-actions, and in the subtlest, most stunning ways.


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