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A CurtainUp Review
A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick

With Additional Thoughts by Elyse Sommer

Looks like the water bottling plant’s finally gonna go through! Jobs! — Pickle
Terrible news.< That’s right, you got a thing about bottled water. What’s your thing against bottled water? — Pickle
Tons of plastic waste! Tons of fuel to deliver! Minimal health testing! — Abebe
A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick
William Jackson Harper and Myra Lucretia> (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Playwright Kia Corthron has gained a reputation for confronting and dramatizing socio-political issues. A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick is her latest play that is admirable in its mission but less so in its final product. It is an unapologetic message play.

Although I am not familiar with her other plays or a previous play also produced by Playwrights Horizons Breath, Boom and Life and Life by Asphyxiation, Corthron is obviously a gifted writer. But she has stuffed this play with enough dramatic content to fill three plays. She has also layered it with more politicized rhetoric than any one play can deal with successfully. That Corthron has a worthwhile cause is evident but it is a shame that her cause in this instance, the world’s water supply and the usurping of its control, grievously smothers the dramatic content.

The term agitprop (see Elyse Sommer’s add-on below) comes readily to mind during the course of this somewhat pedantic work. There are perhaps a few too many discourses particularly as they redundantly affirm and underline Corthron’s ideological agenda. These tend to undermine our interest in the more personal conflicts of the characters. It is for the fine actors, under the sturdy direction of Chay Yew, to keep us involved in their lives even as the rhetoric becomes oppressive as well as obsessive.

Abebe (William Jackson Harper) is an African preacher-in-training who has come to America from his homeland Ethiopia for further studies in both religion and ecology. He has accepted the invitation of Pickle (Myra Lucretia Taylor) to live with her and her daughter H.J. (Kianné Muschett.) Abebe find that though he left his town where the water supply is about to be controlled by a large corporation that is building a dam, he is now livingin a rural American town in the midst of a prolonged drought.

But Abebe is more than an aspiring spiritual leader. He is an optimist with an activist’s zeal and a resolve to serve God as well as to save the world’s water supply. Needless to say, it’s a big, if not inhuman, undertaking — but perhaps not for this disarming zealot who can see the bright side in almost every situation.

From the first moment we see Abebe, as he takes a child-like pleasure in the repeated flushing of an indoor toilet, we know we are in the presence of a joy-intoxicated young man, however possessed by both a spiritual and ecological mission. He is played with an ingratiating charm by Harper. Consequently, as he practices his sermons with increasing fervor, he finds a responsive audience in us as much as from Pickle and H.J.

Middle-aged and grieving the death of her husband, father and son from drowning in New Orleans during the Katrina disaster, Pickle is haunted by their ghosts that speak to her through the walls of her kitchen. Taylor gracefully and exuberantly defines Pickle as a woman who will never really regain the emotional equilibrium she has lost. She does find solace in the blues music of John Lee Hooker and in the pleasure of Abebe’s company. Muschett, who is making her Playwrights Horizons debut, puts plenty of zip into her role as H.J., whose devotion to her mother is equaled by her resistance to being baptized by Abebe.

In one of the play’s more amusing scenes Abebe, who only sees the good in everything, serves as a mediator in the on-again-off again-on-again romance between H.J. and Tich (Keith Eric Chappelle.) To Abebe’s chagrin he learns that Tich works at the local water bottling plant, an excuse for another unsettling rant. Chappelle also ably does double duty in the part of Seyoum, a long time friend of Abebe in Ethiopia. Perhaps the most poignant part of the story concerns Abebe’s attempt to communicate with and guide Tay (Joshua King) an orphaned lad who has remained mute ever since witnessing the murder of his family.

Corthron’s ability to expose a serious world problem is both admirable and relevant. However she loses grasp of the changes in her characters over an eight year period in both America and Ethiopia.

Designer Kris Stone’s cleverly devised settings transport us with ease from a kitchen in America to a barren crick to a water-filled dam in Ethiopia.

The characters, when given a chance, are compelling, interesting, vital and amusing. But, as you might surmise, A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick is self-consciously overwrought, overwritten, and even preachy. Even though I felt as if I was being hit over the head with a sermon, I was also moved and impressed by the playwright’s obviously heartfelt objective.

Edward Albee has stated that he never writes a play with an agenda or as he put it in one interview, "I write a play to find out why I'm writing it." Kia Corthron, on the other hand, is an admittedly issues oriented playwright who builds her plays on a specific subject foundation. In the 30s and 40s she might have been categorized as an agit-prop playwright though she rejects that label as ineffective for getting her points across to audiences. In an interview with Don Shewey in The New York Times she stated that "every play of mine starts from a socio political issue."

I appreciate the theater's role as a forum for dramatizing important issues and Corthron's considerable skill to move people with the style and rhythm of her words and to create vital characters with a keen sense of humor like Cool Dip's Abebe. However, it's disappointing when she lets the preacher/teacher inside her take over from the dramatist. This is especially the case in A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick, even though it takes up an an issue that's long been of great concern to thinking people, just a few of whom are quoted below :

When the well is dry, we learn the worth of water.—Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard's Almanac

we are allowing every brook to be defiled. George Bird Grinnell, Outdoor America, February 1925

We think of our land and water and human resources not as static and sterile possessions but as lifegiving assets to be directed by wise provisions for future days.—Franklin D. Roosevelt

Water is the most precious, limited natural resource we have in this country...But because water belongs to no one - except the people - special interests, including government polluters, use it as their private sewers.—Ralph Nader

In an age when man has forgotten his origins and is blind even to his most essential needs for survival, water along with other resources has become the victim of his indifference.—Rachel Carson

We forget that the water cycle and the life cycle are one.—Jacques Cousteau

Children of a culture born in a water-rich environment, we have never really learned how important water is to us. We understand it, but we do not respect it.—William Ashworth, Nor Any Drop to Drink, 1982

Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.— W.H. Auden

Ever wonder about those people who spend $2 on those little bottles of Evian water? Try spelling Evian backward .—George Carlin

Links to other plays by Kia Corthron reviewed at
Breath, Boom
Force Continuum
Light Raise the Roof
Seeking the Genesis/
Splash Hatch on the E Train Going Down
A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crickby Kia Corthron
. Directed by Chay Yew.
Cast: Keith Eric Chappelle (Seyoum/Tich), William Jackson Harper (Abebe), Joshua King (Tay), Kianné Muschett (H. J), Myra Lucretia Taylor (Picle)
Scenic Design Kris Stone
Costume Design: Anita Yavich
Lighting Design: Ben Stanton
Sound Design: Darron L West
Production Stage Manager: Kasey Ostopchuck
The Play Company and The Culture Project at Playwrights Horizons - Peter Jay Sharp Theater 416 West 42nd Street
Running Time: two hours and twenty minutes,including intermission.
Tues-Fri at 7:30pm, Sat at 2:00 & 7:30pm.
From 3/04/10; closing 4/11/2010
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at March 26th press preview
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