A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 27, 2010
Kia Corthron clearly has a lot she wants to say in her play, A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick. Her primary message has to do with conservation, especially with regard to water: that our planet is squandering its most precious resource, and as if that weren't bad enough, the people who need water the most are often those who have no way to get it, given that it is frequently controlled by corrupt governments and greedy corporations that would rather build lucrative mega-dams than ensure that local villages and towns have the water supply they require. This is very important stuff, and it is commendable to find it at the center of a play, bucking the recent trend away from probing important social issues in contemporary American drama.
Unfortunately, Corthron's play, well-intended though it may be, is far from satisfying. A key reason, I think, is that there are so many other themes apart from the water supply that course through the piece: relationships among Africans and Americans, and among African Americans and white Americans; Christianity and faith; coping with catastrophe and grief; and, in jolting counterpoint to the main idea of the play, the destructive power of water, as exemplified by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. My companion also pointed out another throughline of the play, in which one of its main characters seems to break everything he attempts to fix, which might be a metaphor for humanity's meddling with nature or might portend some other sort of caution. In any event, as you can see, there's a lot wedged into this play—probably far more than a single play can comfortably hold.
A synopsis is in order at this point. Cool Dip mostly takes place in the Maryland home of "Pickle" Carter, an African American woman who recently lost her husband, father, and son to the floodwaters of the Mississippi after Katrina (the play begins in 2006). Pickle lives now with her daughter, H.J., and a new boarder, Abebe, an Ethiopian student whom she met during a church tour abroad. Abebe is studying ecology and the Bible; he wants to learn how to bring water to his homeland and how to bring Jesus to everybody. Abebe and H.J. strive to help Pickle through her massive grief at the loss of so much of her family. Abebe also becomes a sort of "big brother" to Tay, a white boy whose father killed everyone else in their family before shooting himself.
Act One lays out these various storylines and some others and though a lot of balls are being juggled in the air by Corthron, it's engaging and interesting. But in Act Two, the playwright switches gears, lurching into the future several years, taking a detour to Ethiopia, and then introducing a new character, Tich, who becomes H.J.'s love interest and a sort of stand-in for the faceless institutions (such as Nestle, the main one implicated in the script) responsible for harming our ecosystem. The dialogue turns dogmatic and journalistic—for example, Abebe has this informative but awkward speech during a conversation with H.J.:
In 1999 officials in Cochabamba, Bolivia, hand over control of the public's water to Bechtel, a U.S. corporation. Bechtel quickly raises the price of water. The cost now well out of reach of the poor, Bechtel begins to charge the people for the water they pull from their own wells, for the rainwater they collect.
I kept thinking: there's got to be a more organic and compelling way to present this important information. I also kept getting distracted by details that don't ring true in the play; for example, it's set in Maryland, but it didn't feel much like my home state (I lived in Maryland until 1999, and I can't remember seeing very many Confederate flags waved around back then, though Corthron has Tay's father give his son one). And I was troubled by Corthron's characterization of Abebe: he's a very likeable, kind man, but he does come off ultimately as something of a stereotyped buffoon, mangling English idioms and intruding tactlessly into the affairs of others like a proverbial bull in a china shop.
I was particularly put off by the amount of water and food used within the production itself. H.J. sits in a tub full of water in one scene, and water is poured onto the stage and into paper cups; there are also trays of food from which the actors nibble in many scenes. For a play preaching about conservation, a lot of leftovers are generated at each performance. I would have preferred to use my imagination while the actors mimed eating and drinking and pouring rather than all of this verisimilitude.
Chay Yew's staging is tight and efficient but doesn't really solve the play's problems. The production is grounded by two exceptional performances, those of Myra Lucretia Taylor and William Jackson Harper as Pickle and Abebe, respectively. Ten-year-old Joshua King is also compelling as the sad boy Tay; he is missed in Act Two, when his character has basically been written out of the story.
There's a pressing need on America's stages for socially and politically relevant work such as Corthron is attempting here, and it's great to see Playwrights Horizons and their producing partners The Play Company and Culture Project giving this piece a platform. But the work itself does not achieve the potential it aspires to, and that's a shame.