If someone were to ask me in one sentence what I thought of A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick by Kia Corthron….I would say, the acting is superb, it's visually stunning, but there are too many themes. This play centers around Abebe, a South African 20-year-old student (William Jackson Harper) newly arrived in the U.S. and studying to be a preacher. He also has an extreme fascination with water and a passion to save the world from ecological doom. Ironically, the town is suffering from a drought. At the top of the play Abebe is living with Pickle, a jolly black woman played by Myra Lucretia Taylor, and her rebellious teenage daughter H.J., played by Kianne Muschett. Both are recovering from a tragic loss, though H.J believes her mother in dealing with this death of her brother and father is not facing reality. Abebe has also taken it upon himself to comfort a town boy, Tay (Joshua King) who’s gone mute after witnessing the brutal murder of his parents. Harper as Abebe is consistently entertaining, impassioned, and in full command of his numerous, fact-laden speeches against corporate America, water bottling companies, and descriptions on how the two destroy our ecological system.
Corthron, our playwright, is also gifted at writing the characters' personal stories, infusing poignancy and humor. Happily, Harper and Taylor are just as gifted at the telling of their characters' stories, and more than once I was choked up. The play is very entertaining at spots, especially when Abebe is practicing to be a preacher. At one point he rehearses baptism and dunks H.J. in the bathtub. The play, seemingly traditional, takes a surrealist turn when dreamlike intruders make an appearance as Pickle’s level of coherency diminishes. By the end of the first act, we are left with a rather horrific image of the now almost-speaking Tay wearing blood-soaked pajamas.
The play skips time to seven years later when Abebe goes back to his Ethiopian village a day too late to mourn his dead brother Seyoum, played by Keith Eric Chappelle. Abebe is confronted with the fact that he did nothing to stop the building of a “mega damn” which displaced 5000 people in his village and caused Seyoum’s entire family to die. When Abebe returns for Pickle’s 50th birthday, everything seems normal, but Pickle has neglected to tell Abebe some very major plot twists. One, H.J has found religion after some drastic life changes and two, an industrial bottling plant helps employ the town but destroys the environment. These new revelations cause Abebe’s spirit to indulge in one of his only moments of defeat, but only for a second. On a quest to baptize H.J, all three take a journey to a beautiful creek (crick) where Abebe had once baptized and saved his first sinners. This moment might be the impetus for the title of the play as the creek has dried up.
Structurally, many of the plot and storylines that were set up in act one finish in the eight years not part of the play. This gives cause for much exposition but also a little disappointment. I would have liked to have witnessed what developed with Tay (King), the harmonica playing boy, rather than hear about his life tragedy. Now his role didn’t seem to have much significance.
Directory Chay Yew keeps the action moving and gives an overall tight production. Taylor is delightfully human in the face of dealing with pain. Muschett as H.J. ages her part well; though I did find her new found religion made her a little less interesting in terms of conflict. Chapelle gave quite nice contrast to his two parts especially his sensitive and comic performance as Tich, H.J.’s estranged boyfriend/husband.
The set by Kris Stone is gorgeous and works cohesively with the lighting design by Ben Stanton. I don’t think the rolling river would have looked so sparkling without the reflection of lights. One breathtaking vision had the stage transform to look like an ice pond with a figurative tree in the back. I am a big fan of details that tell a story so I especially appreciated the colorful magnets and pictures of children on the refrigerator in the first act in contrast to the stark white refrigerator eight years later.
This play is filled with compelling passionate characters with fascinating stories but the potpourri of messages and themes from Christianity to bad corporate baby formula left me at times overwhelmed.