A group of Americans arrive by spacecraft 165 years late on a planet far from Earth to find that the wealthy white passengers on board are unwelcome among the people of color who have already settled there.
It sounds like an episode of the TV series “Star Trek” or “Twilight Zone”, but it’s the plot of a new play produced by Portland Stage. In “Last Ship to Proxima Centauri,” Boston-based playwright Greg Lam tackles race and the murder of suspects in police custody head-on.
Asian American, Lam uses humor and horror to illustrate how human beings categorize, rank and rate each other in an apparent need to create a society that claims equality for all. .
The play won the Clauder Contest for New England Playwrights, sponsored by Portland Stage. The aim of the competition is “to provide exposure, encouragement and critical feedback to up-and-coming playwrights who typically receive little more than a return postcard for material they send to theaters and producers”.
Because the Proxima Centauri in Lam’s play is populated by people from all over the world, the actors speak Spanish, Mandarin and Yoruba, an official language of Nigeria. These lines are translated into English and projected onto a small screen above the stage. The actors successfully underscore the emotion the characters express in languages other than English, so viewers often understand the gist of what is being said before it is translated.
Director Kevin R. Free deftly balances the series’ tone as it moves from comedy to tragedy. It also keeps the actors moving inside the little spaceship so the play doesn’t become static or boring. Its diverse cast becomes a tight ensemble that paces the action beautifully.
Tom Ford and Marcy McGuigan play respectively Morris Emerson and Adelaide Russell, two of the white Americans aboard the ship. They are part of a group whose members take turns going in and out of stasis to steer the ship to the planet they plan to make their new home.
As they begin to communicate with people on Proxima Centauri, the duo realize that the ship needs a professional negotiator to get permission to land and wake up Henry Hirano, played by Kennedy Kanagwa. But it’s a bit of an impostor, which is of no use.
After the ship crashes into Proxima Centauri, security guards Jamal James as Tunde and Octavia Chavez-Richmond as Paz, who does not speak English, board and warn Morris and Adelaide to view. A discussion of American movies, TV shows, and video games spirals out of control.
These actors are equally good and work beautifully together to bring Lam’s ideas to life. James stands out a bit from the others for the great energy he brings to the role.
Portland Stage’s technical team deserves a standing ovation for the spaceship’s decor, designed by German Cardenas-Alaminos; the colorful costumes, created by Haydee Zelideth; lighting, designed by Jamie Grant; and sound, created by Seth Asa Sengel. All of their creative work is essential to bringing Lam’s vision to life so perfectly.
Portland Stage and Lam gave Mainers a way to talk about race, ethnicity and police brutality using the performing arts. “Last Ship to Proxima Centauri” raises questions about white privilege, slavery, self-government and popular culture. Basically, the play makes viewers wonder if human beings have the ability to accept each other, understand each other, and live together in peace without destroying each other. These are all matters we need to talk about before, not after, the last ship leaves Earth.
“Last Ship to Proxima Centauri” will be played at 7:30 p.m. Friday, 3:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. It is available to stream until April 3. For more information, visit portlandstage.org or call 207-774-0465.