How do you solve a problem like Pericles? Scholars agree that at most half of the play was written by Shakespeare, and the other half was probably written by George Wilkins. (Who?) The Pericles of the title is a Phoenician noble who seeks to win the daughter of King Antiochus in a riddling contest. But when he solves the riddle, a complication arises: The answer to the puzzle is that Antiochus is involved in an incestuous relationship with the would-be betrothed. To evade the executioner's blade, Pericles flees across several oceans and in doing so finds a more suitable mate, fathers a child, loses both wife and daughter and eventually goes mad with grief. It's a story that is fractious and convoluted, with little of Shakespeare's vaunted universal themes.
Director Andrea Frye elegantly solves this problem by changing a few place names and creating a framework for all the to and fro by casting Pericles' journey as a metaphor for the African diaspora. Now Pericles (Ka'ramuu Kush) is not blindly fleeing death but being driven across the world by the fates. When he brings gifts of gold and food to a Haiti recently devastated by natural disaster, it's a reference we understand. When he washes up on the shores of pre-Castro Havana and wins a beautiful wife, Thaisa (Patrese McClain), through his courtliness and grace, we understand the high life he's now living. When the sea claims Thaisa and spits her up on the shores of the Gullah Islands, we see how all the pieces fit together; the journeying has broken apart the family, but it is here in America that Pericles and family will be made whole again, if they can stay strong and keep the faith.
Kush carries most of the story, moving smoothly from dignified noble to man on the run to a broken husk hollowed out by grief, and McClain is similarly excellent as Thaisa. The large ensemble features quite a few familiar faces doubling roles with great aplomb. Joe Hanrahan plays the assassin with reptilian menace but gives us a bawd who is rollicking and comically boisterous. Susie Wall is both a frowzy brothel runner and a conniving, ambitious queen who has more than a little Lady Macbeth in her. Robert A. Mitchell crackles as the narrator, Gower, a griot-like figure in Mardi Gras finery who capers and scolds and mocks the characters while setting up scenes; he's the Greek chorus as signifier and heckler.
Frye and company have made virtues of the play's defects and embellished the best parts with a panache and visual style that is the hallmark of the Black Rep. Sarita Fellows' costumes are gorgeous, and you're not likely to see another tempest at sea that features break-dancing waves stealing away with a king while sails billow overhead. Pericles is not a frequently performed play, but this is a production not to be missed even if there were three more versions coming down the pike.