by Fran Zell
Like the celebrated novel it is based on, Middle Passage which opened this week at Chicago’s Lifeline Theatre, is a multi-layered epic adventure that questions the meaning of freedom and the way we live together. Building on the tradition of African American storytelling, the play—like the book, written by MacArthur Fellow Charles Johnson—addresses racism, classicism, and poverty, issues that are as critical now as they were nearly two centuries ago in the slave-stained era in which the story takes place.
This is a powerful and imaginative production, directed by Ilesa Duncan, who co-wrote the adaptation with David Barr III. Duncan and Barr won a Jeff nomination for their adaptation back in 2016 when the play premiered with Pegasus Theatre Chicago, then titled Rutherford’s Travels. As Middle Passage, it had a truncated production with Lifeline in 2020 due to Covid lock downs, and is now up and running with full force and a slick set design that can connote the excitement of a full-rigged ship at sea.
The story centers Rutherford Calhoun (Ajax Dontavius), a young, newly freed slave from Illinois. He leads us through a world of corruption and cruelty beginning in 1830 New Orleans, where his new life is good until it isn’t. Unable to find work, he runs afoul of gambling den creditors despite his self-proclaimed propensity for stealing. He is a rogue, but a charming rogue, and easily forgivable, especially in light of the much greater, state-sanctioned crimes being committed all around him.
Isadora Bailey (Shelby Lynn Bias) is a high-minded schoolteacher from a Boston family freed from slavery for generations. She loves Rutherford , but wants to gentrify him, and can’t accept that he doesn’t love her. She schemes to keep him out of prison by paying his debts, but only if he marries her and so the creditors prepare to carry Calhoun to the altar.
Rutherford sees that option as another prison sentence and escapes on the first ship out of town, the Republic, unaware that it is a slave ship “My God,” he exclaims the first time he witnesses the savagery with which captive men, women and children are treated on board. “How can I go on after witnessing this?”
This is perhaps the central question of the play as originally posed in Johnson’s National Book Award winning and bestselling novel. First published in 1990, the book brought attention to barbaric practices on slave ships during the part of the journey known as the Middle Passage.
The term reflects the concept of a triangular trade route in which ships left the New World with commodities like hides, tobacco, sugar and rum, exchanged them in Europe for money and manufactured goods that were then used to purchase slaves in Africa, who were shipped to the Americas and exchanged for commodities that were once again shipped to Europe, ad infinitum repeating a process that spanned 400 years and accounted for the tortured deaths of at least two million people. That toll is roughly 10 to 20 per cent of the estimated 12.5 million people who were trafficked from Africa, all of them shackled, and stacked like so much cordwood in the dark, airless holds of the ship. Some two million more would die from horrific lives under slavery.
This historical truth provides context to a fictional tale of a hapless ship populated by the tyrannical Captain Falcon (Patrick Blashill), a mutinous crew, and a mystical clan of African captives called the Allmuseri. Rutherford can’t decide whose side he’s on, tumbling back and forth between loyalties. He’s as storm-tossed as the sea that is so ably depicted in this intimate theater space via lighting, sound, projections, and other design/production team magic.
“I don’t know who is right or wrong,” Rutherford says at a moment when it is impossible to know who is perpetrating what violence on whom. “I just want to keep everyone alive.”
Everyone doesn’t stay alive. But lessons are learned and driven home by a frightful Allmuseri deity who the Captain has smuggled on board under the delusional belief that even gods can be bought and sold.
There is so much to praise in this tightly-wound show, starting with Dontavius who plays Calhoun with just the right balance of brash energy and wide-eyed uncertainty, helping to hold all the disparate plot points together. Other noteworthy performances are delivered by Bias, Blashill, Christopher Vizurraga as Peter Cringle, the first mate who questions slavery, and Linsey Falls as Papa Zerinque, underworld boss and traitor to his own people.
Middle Passage directed by Ilesa Duncan, continues Thursdays through Sundays until June 5 at Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. Co-adapted by Ilesa Duncan and David Barr III from the Charles Johnson novel, it features Lifeline ensemble members Patrick Blashill and Christopher Vizurraga, and guest artists: Shelby Lynn Bias, Ajax Dontavius, Linsey Falls, Benjamin Jenkins, Monty Kane, Robert Koon, MarieAnge Louis-Jean, Kellen Robinson, and Gerrit Wilford. Tickets are $45, with group/military/student/senior prices and $20 rush tickets subject to availability 30 minutes before show time. Lifeline provides shuttle service to free parking in a nearby lot. For tickets call 773-761-4477 or visit www.lifelinetheatre.com