William Jackson Harper and Myra Lucretia Taylor in A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick.
If you were to rank the oldest, most powerful motifs in storytelling, God and water would be right up there with love and death. These are evocative forces, good for drama, but difficult to control.
These forces ran wild in Kia Corthron’s new play, A Cool Dip In The Barren Saharan Crick, showing at the Playwrights Horizons’ Peter Jay Sharp Theater in New York until April 11. The story is thick, and seems difficult to act–performers have to make paragraphs worth of water conservation statistics seem conversational, and move quickly between emotional extremes.
In the play, an Ethiopian exchange student named Abebe (William Jackson Harper) travels to America to study theology and water ecology. He lives with a host family, HJ (Kianné Muschett) and Pickle (Myra Lucretia Taylor).
Abebe preaches about the scarcity of clean water. He rages against the mega dam that the International Monetary Fund builds on top of his Ethiopian village, as well as the water bottling plant near HJ and Pickle’s house in the rural south. The women have their own water-related problems. All the men in their family drowned during Katrina.
And that’s just the bones of the plot. Playwright Corthron slams her audience with other big themes. Mourning to the point of mental breakdown, evangelicalism, the flawed foster care system, racism and communicating through cultural barriers.
Corthron manages some pretty brilliant scenes in the mayhem. She ends the first act with a sharply-timed seance that’s fresh and terrible. At the beginning of the first act, Abebe performs a beautiful funeral for his friend who drowned himself in the water behind the Ethiopian mega dam. Corthron is very good at writing scenes between the living and the dead.
Unfortunately, that kind of clarity is rare. Corthron is clearly talented, but many of the gems in her script slip get lost in the crowded delivery. Maybe that’s her plan–to flood the audience with ideas and see what sticks. If there are any clear take-home points, they are that people have issues and that the water crisis is extremely complicated. But we knew that already, and you get the feeling that Corthron has more to offer.