“Middle Passage” is a play revolving around a young man, Rutherford Calhoun, living on the sly as a petty thief and conman in New Orleans in 1830. A recently freed slave, Calhoun’s overwhelming self-confidence puts him into severe debt, which gets him into just enough hot water that he’s forced into a marriage he feels he does not want.
To get out of his marriage, Calhoun runs away, stowing away on a ship. Unbeknownst to him, it’s a slave ship. Here we find the crux of “Middle Passage,” as our swaggering protagonist soon finds himself in a delicate, almost overwhelming triangle – appeasing the captain, appeasing the crew that hates the captain and helping the slaves with whom he feels kinship.
Calhoun’s role is a huge one. Actor Michael Morrow runs with it as we watch his character mature from a swaggering man-child to a confident adult.
The crew are more pirates than they are sailors. Running a slave ship, they know exactly what they’re doing and only care about themselves – for the most part. The role of Josiah Squibb, who befriends Rutherford, is a great one, as he is the only pirate who displays any empathy. Christopher Hainsworth plays a great Squibb.
Captain Falcon is a scallywag for certain. He doesn’t give a parrot’s caw about anyone but himself. Actor Patrick Blashill made sure he took that role and squeezed it dry until every audience member held no empathy for his situation.
The rest of the cast had worthy performances, but I want to take note of two who really shined: LaQuin Groves as Santos and Demetra Dee as Baleka.
The set is magnificent, doubling as both a New Orleans pier and a listing ship, complete with hold. The pier/ship is wide, and there is plenty of room upstage for a series of well-choreographed fight scenes. These scenes were a delight to behold, and it’s obvious the entire cast worked very hard to get these down. A round of applause goes to both scenic designer Alan Donahue and choreographer Nicole Clark Springer.
Adding to the whole aura of being on the sea and the intense nature of the story is great work on the lighting and sound. There were a few moments during the storm scenes where I caught myself gripping my chair. A standing ovation to Simean Carpenter and Barry Bennett for their efforts.
My only beef with the play is the mysterious godlike creature “captured” and put on board the ship in the hold next to the slaves. If the reason it was on the ship was to wreak havoc, that’s fine, but it should’ve been more pronounced in dialogue than in action. In my opinion, this is akin to the briefcase in “Pulp Fiction” – some things are better left a mystery to be solved within an audience member’s head.
As it is, “Middle Passage” has a very deep story with a lot of arcs. When you base a play on a novel – as this one is based on a book written by Dr. Charles Johnson – it’s often difficult to condense. However, if director/co-adaptor Ilesa Duncan took this entire part out, it would not be missed.
“Middle Passage” is playing at the Lifeline Theatre in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood until April 5. Lifeline is an intimate theater tucked into Glenwood Avenue right by the CTA Red Line/Purple express. On occasion, you can hear the train clickety-clacking by, but it does not hamper the performance whatsoever. In parts of it, it’s kind of an addition.
Because of the performances, stage, sound, lighting and fight choreography, it’s certainly worth the drive. Street parking is tight, but the theater has a shuttle system to ease that problem. Get there early enough to take advantage of it.