• Angela Allyn

Swashbuckling Epic Dives Deep


April 25, 2022


4 stars




Charles Johnson’s novels are important reads that entertain and make you deeply think about the African American experience. Lifeline Theatre’s gorgeous adaptation by Ilesa Duncan and David Barr III of his National Book Award winning Middle Passage is thrilling and thoughtful and intense, a not to be missed show that is back after being waylaid in 2020 by COVID 19.


Protagonist Rutherford Calhoun (played with extreme range by Ajax Dontavius who goes from lovable freewheeling rake to a deep man in the span of the evening) is no Ishmael, but he like that complex fictional character sets to sea where he will encounter a cast of complex characters all trying to escape something untenable in their lives– for Calhoun its the prospect of an arranged marriage that causes him to stow away on what turns out to be an ill fated slave ship. The plot has many twists and turns, with the small ensemble cast playing a host of characters from Calhoun’s family back in Illinois, to the Ahab like Captain Falcon (played with troubled complexity by Patrick Blashill) to his shipside ally and mentor Peter Cringle ( played by the brooding Chris Vizurraga) to all of the slaves on the ship. There are fantastic fights choreographed by R &D Choreography on a brilliant creaking ship set designed by Alan Donahue. The sound design by Barry Bennett combined with the projections created by Alex Gendal make you feel like you are by the sea and then at sea in storm and adrift. It is a sensory experience you won’t forget– all that's missing are misters in the ceiling to feel the salt spray.


This is an unlikely hero's journey, as Calhoun has to navigate the difficult question of what is good and what is evil even as he asks what does a black man need to do to survive. The cast chants Choose Choose Choose and it is essentially what the world asks of each of us. There are so many points in Calhoun’s voyage where an entire universe is evoked based on a choice. This is a show to see multiple times to see new layers of meaning upon each viewing.


Middle Passage is running Thursdays through Sundays until June 5th, 2022 at Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N Glenwood Avenue in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. For tickets and information head to http://lifelinetheatre.com/performances/2021-2022/middle-passage-2022/ or call 773-761-4477.

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