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Theater: A Big Blue Nail
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Theater Editor
2008-02-13

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A Big Blue Nail. Photo by Liz Lauren. Playwright: Carlyle Brown. At: Victory Gardens Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln. Phone: 773-871-3000; $20-$45. Runs through: March 2

Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay got it right. After conquering Everest in 1953, they said they reached the summit together. But in 1909, Robert Peary alone took credit for reaching the North Pole first. In his final push, Peary was accompanied by four Inuit men and Matthew Henson, his right-hand man of 20 years. Henson probably set foot at the Pole first, but Peary was the expedition commander, a famous arctic explorer, a seeker of personal glory—and white, while Henson was Black.

Today, both explorers are buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Peary's monument proclaims 'Discoverer of the North Pole' while Henson's proclaims 'Co-Discoverer.' Neither one 'discovered' the North Pole—a scientific abstraction at best—but getting there was a very big deal 100 years ago. Racial attitudes being as they were, it was decades before Henson's accomplishments were acknowledged.

Carlyle Brown's ambitious work wants to be a Big Play. It wants to delve the Peary-Henson relationship, but it also wants to be generically about racism and imperialism as illustrated by Peary's treatment of Henson and the Inuits. It wants to exist simultaneously in memory, fact and fevered fantasy. It attempts to be historical, political and spiritual. A Big Blue Nail is highly theatrical but pulls itself in too many directions.

Billed as the world premiere, the play shows loose threads from nearly a decade of developmental alterations. For example, various Inuit rituals and spirits are introduced with little context supplied for audiences to understand them. And Peary's wife appears in two early scenes but makes no real contribution to the tale. We receive virtually no biographical detail about Henson himself. Seen as a stoical figure with little personality, he's kept offstage for large segments of the play.

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The relationship between Henson and Peary is the play's heart and soul and needs to be Brown's concentrated focus. His forceful material doesn't yet strike the right balance between realism and magic realism. It offers spectacle but isn't always compelling. We don't need racial history lessons or Peary's self-justifications or fantasies except as they relate specifically to Henson. Peary's often-sexist imaginings and his affair with an Inuit woman are distractions ( and ignore Henson's fathering of a half-Inuit son ) . Actors as proven and strong as Anthony Fleming III ( Henson ) and Larry Neumann, Jr. ( Peary ) need more psychological meat between them and less theatrical artifice. If Brown can make it their story rather than, largely, either Peary's story or a pageant, he'll have a winning play.

Director and scenic designer Loy Arcenas shapes A Big Blue Nail with lively movement and astute design. Jesse Klug's lighting works wonders on Arcenas' simple but subtle sheets of crumpled fabric, replicating Arctic ice. Meghan Raham's fine period costumes reflect Inuit detail.

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