A group of Americans arrive by spaceship 165 years late to a planet far from Earth only to find that the white, affluent passengers on board are not welcome among the people of color who have already settled there.
It sounds like an episode from the “Star Trek” or “Twilight Zone” television series 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 killing of suspects in police custody head on.
An Asian American, Lam uses humor and horror to illustrate how human beings categorize, rank and rate one another in an apparent need to create a society that purports equality for all.
The play won the Clauder Competition for New England playwrights, sponsored by Portland Stage. The contest’s goal is “to provide exposure, encouragement, and critical feedback to promising playwrights who typically receive little more than a return postcard for the material they send to theaters and producers.”
Because the Proxima Centauri in Lam’s play is populated by people from all over the planet, the actors speak Spanish, Mandarin and Yoruba, an official language of Nigeria. Those lines are translated into English and projected onto a small screen above the stage. The actors successfully emphasize the emotion the characters express in languages that aren’t English so theatergoers often get the gist of what is being said before it is translated.
Director Kevin R. Free expertly balances the tone of the show as it moves from comedy to tragedy. He also keeps the actors moving inside the small spaceship so that the play does not become static or dull. His diverse cast becomes a tight ensemble that beautifully paces the action.
Tom Ford and Marcy McGuigan portray Morris Emerson and Adelaide Russell, respectively, two of the white Americans on board the ship. They are part of a group whose members take turns going in and out of stasis to steer the ship toward the planet they plan to make their new home.
As they begin communicating with people on Proxima Centauri, the duo realize the ship needs a professional negotiator to get permission to land and wake up Henry Hirano, played by Kennedy Kanagwa. But he is a bit of an imposter, who is of little help.
Once the ship crashes on Proxima Centauri, security officers Jamal James as Tunde and Octavia Chavez-Richmond as Paz, who speaks no English, board it and take Morris and Adelaide into custody. A discussion about American movies, television shows and video games spirals out of control.
These cast members are equally fine and work beautifully together to bring Lam’s ideas to life. James stands out a bit from the others because of the high level of energy he brings to the role.
Portland Stage’s technical team deserves a standing ovation for the spaceship set, 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 in bringing Lam’s vision so perfectly to life.
Portland Stage and Lam have given Mainers a vehicle for talking about race, ethnicity and police brutality using the performing arts. “Last Ship to Proxima Centauri” sparks questions about white privilege, slavery, self-governance and popular culture. Fundamentally, the play makes theatergoers wonder whether human beings have the capacity to accept, understand and live peacefully together without destroying each other. These are all topics we need to talk about before, not after, the last ship leaves Earth.
“Last Ship to Proxima Centauri” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday, at 3:30 and 8 p.m Saturday, and at 2 p.m. Sunday. It is available for streaming through April 3. For more information, visit portlandstage.org or call 207-774-0465.