Eddie Ray Jackson, left, and Adrian Roberts are excellent in the premiere of “pen/man/ship” at Magic Theatre.
“I am a Negro man from an elite class!” proclaims the alcoholic, doomed land surveyer Charles (Adrian Roberts) toward the end of Christina Anderson’s new drama, “pen/Man/Ship.”
The play, set in 1896 during a fraught, two-month voyage across the Atlantic, is onstage in its world premiere at the Magic Theatre.
“You are a colored pig who’s about to wear the rope,” retorts Ruby (Tangela Large).
Ruby is the only woman aboard the worn whaling vessel headed for Liberia, and the only character who has a clear, unfettered sense of purpose: to escape the Jim Crow laws of her native land and reinvent her life in Africa. By force of her assertive personality and native smarts, she quickly gains the trust and loyalty of the all-African-American crew of 15 men.
On the other hand, the disdainful Charles, the leader of the voyage (although he’s not the ship’s captain), has just as quickly lost the crew’s respect.
From the very beginning he is deeply suspicious of everyone — everyone, that is, except his son, Jacob (Eddie Ray Jackson) and a self-effacing accordion-player, Cecil (Tyee Tighman), a sort of surrogate son — including the formidable Ruby and the entire crew of “animals.”
The grounds for Charles’ suspicions are murky; presumably he’s fearful the crew would mutiny if they knew the true purpose of this perilous voyage — to scout land for a penal colony for “Negroes.”
They do mutiny — but not for that reason.
“Pen/Man/Ship” is in some ways a potent father-son relationship drama. The anguished, depressed Jacob both loves and fears his dad, a widower, to whom he is deeply indebted: Charles paid to get Jacob out of a fix; he had been arrested in a “brothel for fairies,” a plot point that’s never developed.
Similarly, a would-be romance between Jacob and Ruby is underdeveloped and, in fact, unconvincing.
Act 1 feels a bit static as Anderson lays the groundwork for the events to follow, whereas the reverse is true in Act 2. So much happens, so quickly that, under Ryan Guzzo Purcell’s direction, scenes sometimes drift into melodrama. But that’s partly due to Anderson’s script, in which the nuances of the intriguingly complex personalities and relationships tend to take a back seat to the sensorial setting, the carefully constructed dialogue and a plot full of action that mainly happens offstage.
But there’s a fierce, bleak inevitability to Anderson’s story, and the strong cast only makes us want to know the characters better.
Presented by Magic Theatre
Where: Building D, Fort Mason, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. June 11; closes June 15
Tickets: $20 to $60
Contact: (415) 441-8822, www.magictheatre.org
Bio: Jean Schiffman is a freelance arts writer specializing in theatre. Some of her short stories and personal essays have been published in newspapers and small literary magazines. She is an occasional book copy editor and also has a background in stage acting. Her book “The Working Actor’s Toolkit” was published...Jean Schiffman is a freelance arts writer specializing in theatre. Some of her short stories and personal essays have been published in newspapers and small literary magazines. She is an occasional book copy editor and also has a background in stage acting. Her book “The Working Actor’s Toolkit” was published by Heinemann. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and overfed cat.more