Story: New York City is stunned when a slave ship suddenly appears in front of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor, centuries after it initially sailed. Its presence elicits a strong reaction from people on shore, including a reporter at the scene, a “slave-ologist” professor, a Republican business executive, a homeless man, a street vendor, a young boy and girl from the projects and others.
There are also two young men who rush to the harbor when they learn that their father, a mentally ill man who lost his job and his grasp on reality after his wife was murdered, has boarded the ship to speak to its “occupants.”
Highlights: Playwright Daniel Beaty won an Obie Award for the 2006 off-Broadway production of this one-act, one-man show in which the performer plays more than 40 roles. The 37-year-old Beaty is a writer, actor, singer and composer whose original play about actor Paul Robeson was the highest-grossing production at the Yale Cabaret for several years.
Emergency is a tour de force vehicle for a performer. Black Rep founder and producing director Ron Himes hands that responsibility to Ron Conner in the current Black Rep production being directed by Himes at Washington University’s Hotchner Studio Theatre adjacent to the Edison Theatre.
Other Info: Conner last season proved himself amazingly versatile across a breadth of remarkable performances, most notably in The Piano Lesson and The Whipping Man. In Emergency, he works on a mostly bare stage beneath a video screen featuring a series of projections designed by Lakysha Williams, including the Statue of Liberty, a studio where a poetry contest is being held and a blueprint of the slave ship Remembrance, which has mystically appeared in New York harbor.
Robin Weatherall’s sound design features tuneful African melodies ranging from Jamaican to South African, while Eric Cope’s lighting design is bright and bountiful for the studio sessions and more pinpointed and subdued when Conner is revealing more poignant moments.
Conner expertly moves between a shy, happy young girl with AIDS to a brash transgender with attitude to a prim and proper businessman to an aggressive homeless man, and dozens in between. The primary focus of Beaty’s story is the relationship between an aspiring poet, his gay brother and their refined father, who taught them that education was the best ticket out of the ghetto until his own life was destroyed by the murder of his wife.
Beaty makes a point of having the wounded father recognize what his ancestors aboard slave ships endured so that eventually their descendants might be free. He also references tragedies such as the AIDS crisis in lower-key fashion as well as having fun with modern-day talent shows and the flavorful life of New York City.
Ultimately, Beaty’s intriguing idea seems to run out of energy and purpose, despite its brief, 70-minute running time. Conner is a consummate professional who differentiates sundry characters with accents, personality traits and expressions that appear and reappear at a dizzying pace, but he is bound by the material.
It’s an interesting performance of a play that could be tighter, better and more focused, offering an actor of Conner’s considerable talent some truly memorable material that he could finely hone.
Company: The Black Rep
Venue: Hotchner Studio Theatre, Mallinckrodt Center, Washington University
Dates: September 12, 13, 14, 15
Tickets: $10-$25; contact 534-3807 or theblackrep.org
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Stewart Goldstein