'The Liquid Plain'

Two runaway slaves living by their wits during the late 18th century on the docks of Bristol, R.I., pull a nearly drowned man from the water. His story — and the role of New England slave ships and money in the trade — reveals a horrific secret and unleashes a series of events that question the nature of forgiveness, justice and vengeance.

"The Liquid Plain," by playwright Naomi Wallace, opens this weekend in the Thomas Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It was commissioned by OSF as part of its American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle program and is winner of the 2012 Horton Foote Prize for Promising New American Play. Kwame Kwei-Armah directs.

The play will preview at 8 p.m. Friday, July 5, open at 8 p.m. Saturday, July 6, and run through Nov. 3. Tickets cost $25, $59 or $72.80 and can be purchased at www.osfashland.org or by calling 541-482-4331.

The two slaves hire a free, black British sea captain, Liverpool Joe, to return them to Africa, but the history they recount from the rescued man's testimony against a prominent New England sea captain drastically alters everyone's plans — and impacts generations to come.

Wallace says she was inspired to write the story from an episode related in award-winning historian Marcus Rediker's book "The Slave Ship: A Human History."

"I became interested in the question of forgiveness and reparation," Wallace says. "For me, it is important to question why forgiveness is being asked for. Will it be acted on? Will there be real change?"

"The Liquid Plain" stars June Carryl, Kimberly Scott, Danforth Comins, Armando Durán, Kevin Kenerly, Bakesta King, Josiah Phillips, Richard Elmore and Michael Winters.

"To speak of closure is not enough," Wallace says. "History is a continuum. It can't be chopped into little pieces and certain events not brought up again. The conversation should continue."

When OSF commissioned "The Liquid Plain," Wallace suggested Kwei-Armah as director. He previously directed Wallace's "Things of Dry Hours" in 2007 at Center Stage. Kwei-Armah also is a noted British actor, playwright and broadcaster. He received an OBE (the Order of the British Empire) in 2012 for his services to drama.

"I am fascinated by the transatlantic slave trade: the complexities, the pain, the systems of wealth-generation juxtaposed against the mechanisms of dehumanization," Kwei-Armah states in a press release. Kwei-Armah is artistic director at Baltimore's Center Stage. "From Liverpool Joe to the senator for Rhode Island, from the political and personal stories of those free and of those bound, from those building legacies to those trying to remember them, Naomi investigates all with poetic cunning. The play's depth is in its ability to make this story as exciting as anything set in that era I have read."

Kwei-Armah has a deeply personal connection to the story of "The Liquid Plain." Born in London to parents from the Caribbean island of Grenada, he started investigating his family's history when he was 19. He discovered his great-great-great-grandfather had been kidnapped in what is now Ghana and sold into slavery in the Caribbean.

As with all the American Revolutions plays OSF has produced, Wallace has been in residence through rehearsals for "The Liquid Plain," working on the script with director, cast and crew.

"I so enjoyed working with Kwame because, besides being a very fine director, as a playwright, he understands the playwright's process," Wallace says.

Scenic design is by Brenda Davis, costumes are by Constanza Romero, and lighting is by Christopher Akerlind with projection and video design by Alex Koch. The composer and sound designer is Victoria Deiorio.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.

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