A line of four sailors on the deck of a ship, apparently being blown by high winds, with ropes swaying as they hold on.
Middle Passage at Lifeline Theatre Credit: Jackie Jasperson

Though it has some of Lifeline’s patented how-do-they-do-that effects, like a completely persuasive storm at sea achieved with nothing but video, some noise, and actors purporting to be blown around, Middle Passage is too cluttered to be satisfying. Rutherford Calhoun’s misadventures on the high seas include a captain mad enough to compete with Ahab, participation in the slave trade, magic-realist interactions with an African god, blackmail, a lost father, and a love story, all crammed into two hours. The adaptation, by David Barr III and director/Lifeline artistic director Ilesa Duncan, probably reflects Charles Johnson’s original novel, but a book can sustain a higher level of complexity than a play.

Middle Passage
Through 6/5: Thu-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 4 and 8 PM, Sun 4 PM; open captioning Sat 5/7, 4 PM and Fri 5/27; Sun 4/22, touch tour at 2:30 PM and audio description; Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood, 773-761-4477, lifelinetheatre.com, $45 ($35 seniors, $20 students, active and retired military, and rush).

Ajax Dontavius is charming as Calhoun, a free Black man in the 1820s who goes to sea to escape debt and the prospect of marriage, and the rest of the company ably handles multiple roles with only a change of shirt or hat. MarieAnge Louis-Jean is a particular standout as both a graceful child and a dancing god. But the moral quandary at the center of the story—a Black American’s collaboration in the enslavement of Black Africans—is nearly drowned out by the multiple plots, and the resolution seems facile. Barry Bennett’s sound design is excellent in presenting sea shanties and thunderstorms, but muddies much of the dialogue, which is presented in a babel of accents including Creole, Irish, Caribbean, and an approximation of West African dialect.