It has taken 10 years for Ilesa Duncan and David Barr III to adjust MacArthur Fellow Charles R. Johnson’s “Middle Passage” — a 1990 National Book Award personality for novella — for a stage. But a outcome of their labors — Pegasus Theatre Chicago’s mightily impressive, unconditionally fascinating universe premiere of “Rutherford’s Travels” — is undoubted justification that their time was good spent.
When: Through Dec. 4
Where: Pegasus Theatre Chicago during Chicago Dramatists,1105 W. Chicago
Run time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission
To be certain there are many vivid, relocating tales of a Middle Passage — a tenure used to report a theatre in a triangular sell by that millions of Africans were shipped to a New World as partial of a Atlantic worker trade. There also are large stories about shocking voyages during sea in that prison-like ships, overseen by vicious or crazy captains, spin a aim of oppressed and seditious sailors. And there are countless picaresque sagas about brave immature group who were possibly tender into service, or naively headed out to sea as stowaways in hunt of a improved life, usually to continue nightmarish experiences.
Johnson’s story has elements of all these account lines. But many of all it is a work of dignified complexity — distant some-more nuanced than a story of good contra evil, or black contra white. While full of scarcely unthinkable horrors, it also possesses elements of astonishing comedy and quirky romance, with characters who really mostly challenge easy stereotyping. And all this is prisoner to riveting (and entertaining) outcome in a Pegasus production, that competence good be a many discriminating and desirous work this association has constructed during a prolonged history.
Set in 1830, a play tells of a final excursion of a Republic, an bootleg American worker ship, as chronicled by Rutherford Calhoun (a Candide-like spin by a gifted Breon Arzell). A newly liberated worker with a mischievous nature, who was prepared by his master, Rev. Chandler (Nelson Rodriguez), Rutherford, 23, flees a Illinois plantation where he and his irritatingly moral comparison brother, Jackson (a spot-on Andrew Malone), worked, and heads to that basement of iniquity, New Orleans.
Once there, he tries to get a pursuit though contingency spin to sparse crime to survive, and along a approach he gets into difficulty with a African-American underworld of that city, including a all-powerful, larger-than-life “godfather,” Papa Zeringue (Dareen Jones), and his large enforcer (played by Osiris Khepera). Rutherford gets into serve difficulty by flirting with Isadora (an altogether memorable spin by Naima Hebrail Kidjo), a proper though intelligent and alluring schoolteacher, who is hellbent on reforming him and creation him her father — something that is really not partial of his plan.
As it happens, Isadora has done a understanding with Zeringue: She will compensate off Rutherford’s debts in sell for marrying her. To shun such extort he sneaks onto a Republic, that he usually after discovers is a worker ship. There, underneath a fearsome, indeterminate Captain Falcon (a ideally mangled spin by Gary Houston), he is once again cursed to work for no pay, and then, once a ship’s “slave cargo” is installed with members of a reputedly fearsome Allmuseri tribe, he is pulpy into espionage on these aggrieved and abused Africans, with a captain’s theft of a terrifying “god” figure adding to a terror.
Rutherford so finds himself a male in a middle. He is supposed by some of his associate sailors, who are white, including a decent First Mate, Cringle (fine work by Rodriguez), and a mostly doubtful cook, Josiah Squibb (a really humorous Ron Quade). And he is confounded by a diagnosis of a Africans — including their charismatic leader, Ngonyama (Malone, a male of good earthy beauty and intensity), and Baleka (Tiffany Renee Johnson, a dancer of ethereal beauty), who he eventually tries to help. A worker rebellion, as good as a mutiny by a organisation (enhanced by Heather Chrisler and David Fehr’s zesty portrayals), spin a ultimate tests of faithfulness and conscience. And before it’s all over there are many reversals and many surprises, nothing of that should be suggested here.
Helping to move “Rutherford’s Travels” to clear life are a propulsive, episodic script, Duncan’s ideal casting and liquid direction, Nicole J. Clarke-Springer’s pulsing choreography, and composer-music executive Shawn Wallace’s consultant mix of sea chanties and African rhythms. Though staged in a insinuate Chicago Dramatists space, Elyse Balogh’s large nautical set, Josh Wroblewski’s capricious lighting, Sarah Putts’ inclement sound and Melissa Perkins’ glorious character-defining costumes give a prolongation — a story of mutation and presence — a epic peculiarity it deserves.