Emergency: Black Rep's slave-ship drama sinks under its own weight

Ron Conner takes on dozens of roles in Emergency.
Ron Conner takes on dozens of roles in Emergency. Stewart Goldstein

Emergency: Black Rep's slave-ship drama sinks under its own weight

Through September 15 at the A. E. Hotchner Studio Theatre at Washington University, 6445 Forsyth Boulevard.
Tickets are $10 to $25. Call 314-534-3807.

The premise is not without promise. In Daniel Beaty's 2006 pastiche Emergency, a 400-year-old slave ship from Ghana arrives in Manhattan harbor from out of the mists of history and sets anchor directly beneath the Statue of Liberty. How did it get here? Where has it been? Who is sailing this ghost ship?

On the most facile level, the situation recalls that odd time back in the 1960s when St. Louis mayor Alfonso Cervantes moored a replica of Christopher Columbus' flagship, Santa Maria, on the Mississippi River directly under the Gateway Arch. Although the Santa Maria had the good sense to sink, the mysterious slave ship (aptly named Remembrance) stays around long enough, not only to compete for tourist attention with Lady Liberty, but to stir people's emotions about unresolved ills.

"I ain't never thought about slavery before the arrival of this slave ship," one startled onlooker concedes in the Black Rep's Emergency staged at the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre on the Washington University campus. The play encourages viewers to think anew about the shackles of America's slave past. (When the Revolutionary War began in 1775, there were already more than 500,000 slaves in the colonies.) Has American slavery been relegated to a back burner? Or does its memory continue to simmer?

"Please leave your rage and pain at the entrance gate," we're advised before embarking on a tour of slave dungeons in Ghana. (The evening skips about in locale and also conveys the inner thoughts of some of its characters.) But there's not really a lot of rage on the stage, nor is there all that much pain. What comes across most strongly is Beaty's desire to impress.

And alas, the evening's promising premise bogs down as soon as the viewer realizes that the play is not really a play at all. Rather, Emergency was conceived as a flashy showcase for its author, who also happens to be an actor. (Beaty has appeared in stagings of Emergency from coast to coast.) But this is another of those evenings where the actor onstage — here, that actor is Ron Conner — spends more time changing characters than developing characters. Depending on which publicity release you read, Conner is enacting somewhere between two dozen and 40 different roles. The actor's challenge to enact strippers and bag ladies and crackheads and crackpot poets, all in the course of 72 breezy minutes, is akin to scene work in an acting class. Yes, Conner is put through a workout, but to what effect? Shakespeare taught us long ago that tales of sound and fury sometimes signify very little.

In the interest of full disclosure, perhaps I should point out that I am not black. So it may be that Beaty's cross-section of 21st century African American life is lost on me. But I can supply a rewarding list of Black Rep productions — Seven Guitars, Intimate Apparel and No Child... (to name just a few) that challenged and enthralled all viewers, regardless of color.

Perhaps I'm in the minority here. "That was a fantastic show," a patron behind me enthused at evening's end. But this minority report would suggest that despite the presence of lots of knee-jerk lines — "this slave ship is not about guilt, it's about healing," a 72-year-old grandmother declares — Emergency plays out like an all-appetizer buffet in need of an entrée.

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