Pen/Man/Ship is an epic in miniature: a seafaring story with only four characters in it, a family saga distilled into a father-son relationship, an investigation into a corner of American history glimpsed almost through a keyhole. It takes place almost entirely inside candlelit ship’s cabins, with a few excursions to the deck, hand-drawn portraits, and marvelous silhouette animations giving a sense of the larger context–the ship, the crew of fifteen men–in which the story moves.
It’s an ingenious way to tell a sweeping story, one well suited to be adapted for the constraints of digital theater, and indeed the production and design elements, as well as director Lucie Tiberghien’s staging/framing choices and the performances, are among the smartest and best-conceived I’ve seen in this weird time of theater-in-our-computer-screens.
(And I pause for a moment to acknowledge the brilliance of the title, which distills both the elements of the play–”pen” as both the ship’s logs and the confinement which befalls various characters; “man” as the patriarch and also the battle of human versus elements; “ship” as the setting but also the modern evocation of it as a shorthand for “relationship”–and its structure, with the slashes in the title mimicking the divisions within the company.)
The time is 1896. Plessy v Ferguson has just been decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, upholding the doctrine of “separate but equal” and enshrining Jim Crow laws through the South. Charles Boyd (Kevin Mambo), a Black land surveyor and a man who grasps firmly to his place in a nascent Black middle class, has chartered a retired whaling ship, with an entirely Black crew, for a journey across the Atlantic, to the new country/colony of Liberia in West Africa, on a surveying mission whose parameters are at first unclear. His son, Jacob (Jared McNeill), recently embroiled in some trouble at home, has been brought along as part punishment, part apprenticeship, but chafes at the menial tasks he’s been given. And to Charles’s surprise, Jacob has brought along a mysterious and outspoken young woman, Ruby (Crystal Lucas-Perry), who soon proves able to relate to the crew in a manner the Boyd men cannot. The one exception is Cecil (Postell Pringle), a ship’s mate with a storied past who becomes Charles’s confidant and drinking buddy.
As the voyage goes on–and the play does not underestimate or underplay the sheer exhaustion, madness, and difficulties of the ocean voyage on the kind of slightly underfunded, possibly understaffed, retrofitted vessel available to a “colored crew with colored passengers”–the fissures among them only grow. Charles is suspicious of Ruby: Why is she traveling alone to Africa on a ship full of men? What designs does she have on his son? Jacob is resentful of his father, not quite sure how to relate to Ruby, and increasingly conscious of exactly how dependent Charles is on alcohol. Ruby, on a mission to restart her life in Africa, defies all of Charles’s expectations for a woman–and then of a proper member of the middle classes, as she not only fraternizes with the crew but becomes their leader. At the act break, Charles is discovered on deck at night, wounded and covered in blood, and the fragile structures violence takes the life of one of the crewmen, and battle lines are drawn between Charles Boyd and his employees. Cecil tries to avoid taking sides, but as Charles becomes more erratic, his loyalties are strained.
The keenest insights in Christina Anderson’s script come from the way she delves sharply into the breadth of different experiences of, and the fractures between and among, Black Americans just after the Civil War, with only this limited palette, and yet the ways that white America continues to impinge on them. Some of Charles’s fulminations on the “animals” of the crew and the need to remove criminals and thugs from American society to reflect better on middle-class Northern Blacks such as himself could have come straight from the mouths of today’s white law-and-order absolutists. Ruby, meanwhile, who escaped the South by the skin of her teeth and now seeks a new life far away from America, notes that nothing a Black man from the North has gone through could compare to what she, a Black woman from the South who worked as a domestic servant, has endured. And the glimpses we hear of Cecil’s life as a seafarer with a keen intellect and a sense of adventure are tantalizing: parties in Paris, a traveler with an accordion on his back.
As with the almost claustrophobic focus of Anderson’s writing, Tiberghien’s staging keeps the actors almost entirely in tight, individual portraits, which call to mind the photography of the era (as the animated/shadow puppet scenes with animation by Emily Rawson call to mind silhouettes and cameos that also evoke the nineteenth century)–but also emphasize the way that each of these characters is in effect operating in a different world, with different rules and different expectations. And where most of the digital theater I’ve thus far seen focuses on either sound design (also excellent here, down to simple stuff like having pristinely clean audio on the dialogue) or digital backdrops, here we get a simple but effective set by Lina Younes, comprising both a model of the entire ship with its individual cabins populated by silhouettes, and then spaces both inside the ship (which includes some instances where characters are reflected in mirrors in other character’s cabins; I don’t even know how that was done but it’s very effective) and the deck. There is also truly remarkable lighting design by Marie Yokoyama (so, for example, when a character hears a knock on a cabin door and opens that door, we see the light on their face change).
But the close focus also highlights the strong work being done by the cast, whose every reaction shines on their faces. Anderson’s period diction allows them all a bit of speechifying, and all of them make the most of it. Kevin Mambo, as Charles, has the biggest arc, as a man who feels his power crumbling beneath him as he battles his own addictions, and Mambo handles the shift from bombast to breakdown poignantly. I was also impressed by Postell Pringle’s Cecil, a character who seems at first like an allegorical representative of “crew,” until we start to understand how complex he is, and what an important role he’ll play in the story.
And I do wish the play had a little more room for that story, and for the other ones that are tantalizingly alluded to but not actually part of the piece. Anderson and Tiberghien’s restraint–and embrace of constraint–are admirable but I’m even more intrigued by the stories seeping out of the corners: Ruby escaping from a lynch mob and saving enough money to go to Liberia, then being fleeced of it. Cecil in Paris, giving accordion lessons. Jacob’s wild act of rebellion that gets him arrested. Perhaps those belong properly to another play, and I hope Anderson writes it.