Keith Eric Chappelle, William Jackson Harper, Joshua King, Kiann Muschett, Myra Lucretia Taylor
In Kia Corthron’s thought-provoking new play, A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick, as in many plays, it’s a visitor that first shakes things up for our central characters. The family consists of Southerners Pickel and H.J. The newcomer is Abebe, a bright young man from Ethiophia studying in the United States to practice one of two occupations – ecology or theology.
A spirited preacher and firm conservationalist, Abebe impressed host mother Pickle on a Christian tour through Africa enough for her to open her home to him in the interest of showing him a better way of life. In their kitchen, Abebe presides of impromptu church sermons, interrupted by Pickle’s old records – the newest arrival being a John Lee Hooker vinyl, the pounding blues of his guitar matched by the rhythmic thump of Pickle’s tapping foot.
Pickle and her daughter H.J. have recently experienced the loss of all three of their family’s men – H.J.’s brother, Pickle’s husband, and Pickle’s father (H.J.’s grandfather) in Hurricane Katrina. Now, however, nearly a year later, the South is experiencing a period of drought. Meanwhile, a water bottling company is opening up in town, and Abebe is determined to oppose its opening as a matter of principle in an effort to fight environmental waste, having seen the effects of megadams on his hometown in Africa.
Thankfully Corthron’s deft hand as a playwright keeps the topical issues of her play from overwhelming the human drama of her characters. There are plenty of strongly-worded debates throughout, but most feel smoothly integrated into the plight of Pickle’s family.
Though Corthron’s tight, fast-building first act is more impressive than the second, which takes its time conveying the play’s central themes, there’s an infectious passion behind Corthron’s play and a vigor to her sharp, jagged use of language that keeps her unpredictable plot bounding forward. Though much of the play unfurls in a heightened realistic style, by the end of the first act Corthron feels comfortable throwing her audience for a loop, introducing some supernatural visitors and taking us on a journey to Africa, where Abebe’s brother Seyoum is struggling with similar issues to his own in terms of their local Ethiopian dam.
In the central role of Abebe, William Jackson Harper impresses, conveying his character’s sense of wide-eyed innocence while remaining rooted in the realities of his hardscrabble past. Though Kiann Muschett as H.J. occasionally displays an off-putting unease with her material – skimming the surface of Corthron’s text rather than diving in – the deficits of her performance are supplanted by Myra Lucretia Taylor’s regal turn as Pickle, the strong, occasionally delusional matriarch of the play’s central broken family.
What’s most impressive about A Cool Dip is the muscular sense throughout that what’s at stake is not just the lives of the family on display but the lives of similar families around the world. With a great economy of muscular dialogue, Kia Corthron’s play demonstrates how the ecology of families – the lives of individuals within a family unit – mirrors the ecology of our planet. Living inside the world of her play, the precarious balance of everything on earth hangs on the weighty subject of water, and, for its duration, even doubters will be made to believe in her environmental brand of theatre.