Middle Passage is part voyage of the damned, part picaresque | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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Middle Passage is part voyage of the damned, part picaresque

Lifeline's staging of Charles Johnson's novel has sea legs.

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UPDATE Friday, March 13: this event has been postponed. Contact box office for further information.


Lighting out for the territory, as Huck Finn put it, may be central to the American dream of liberty, but it's also a false narrative of freedom. We see that clearly in Ilesa Duncan and David Barr III's Middle Passage, adapted from Charles Johnson's 1990 National Book Award-winning novel, which hit the boards with Pegasus a few years ago under the title Rutherford's Travels. It's now back under the original moniker at Lifeline under Duncan's direction.

Rutherford Calhoun (Michael Morrow), a freed slave from Illinois in 1829, follows his licentious bliss to New Orleans, where he meets a governess, Isadora (Shelby Lynn Bias) who wants to make an honest man out of him. Escaping both Isadora and his debts lands him on a ship, the symbolically named Republic, bound for Africa to pick up a cargo of human beings.

What transpires is a battle for Rutherford's soul and identity. Is he one with the white crew, who plot to take control of the ship? Does race, if not tribal affiliation, require him to help the Allmuseri, the group of captured Africans planning their own revolt? Or should he play both sides against the middle and serve as spy to Patrick Blashill's Captain Falcon?

A mix of the historic and the swashbuckling with a scosh of magical realism, this production captures what is most arresting about Johnson's original story. Morrow is splendid as the callow Rutherford forced to grow up and (in one mystical segment) confront literal ghosts of his past. If he sometimes seems like a cipher in the mix of larger-than-life characters surrounding him, that too is a reflection of how a Black man must negotiate what to reveal and what to hide about himself for the sake of his life and liberty.  v

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