Lifeline Theatre presents Dr. Charles Johnson’s 1990 National Book Award winner Middle Passage, directed by Ilesa Duncan, who co-adapted with David Barr III. The result struggles from the page to the stage. Self-described rogue, “social parasite” and freeman Rutherford Calhoun (Michael Morrow) arrives in New Orleans from southern Illinois in 1829, where he enjoys making a living as a pickpocket and petty thief.
As the title suggests, the story is somewhat about the horrific transatlantic slave trade, but also about a man running out on his debts, and a woman. Calhoun flees from “marriage hungry” Boston-born schoolteacher Isadora Bailey (Shelby Lynn Bias) by stowing away on the Republic, captained by Falcon (Patrick Blashill), alongside a motley crew of pirate-y stereotypes and a puppet parrot. An on-the-nose departure declaration says, “No Christian law holds water once you put to sea.”
After they are under way, Calhoun realizes the “three-masted bark” is a slaver that will capture and transport five “sorcerer” members of the Allmuseri tribe (along with an additional cargo of magic realism). In his search to understand freedom, Calhoun switches alliances among the crew, the captain and the enslaved, each group vying to divide and conquer. Calhoun is not Black enough nor white enough to fully fit into any side. One of the songs that serves as scene transitions is the chanting of “choose, choose, choose.”
The strange bedfellows end up adrift between Africa and America, literally and metaphorically, stuck in a Sargasso Sea-like liminal space searching for home, as the un-seaworthy ship (of state?), literally and metaphorically, falls apart, fulfilling the foreshadowing “she will not be the same ship that left New Orleans.” The Calhoun character’s constant self-narration makes the play’s emotional flow as choppy as the sea swells, and his ever-shifting promises make him unsympathetic.
Lifeline and set designer Alan Donahue accomplish their usual admirable job of packing a dynamic set into a small space, the angled wooden ship planks surrounded by effective water projections and lights by Simean Carpenter. Yet the result doesn’t match the weight of the title or the brief scene of humans in chains. What should have been massive emotional stakes becomes a tempest in a teapot.
Middle Passage runs at Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave., through April 5. Tickets are available at 773.761.4477, and run from $20-45. The performance runs about two hours with one intermission.