Environmental racism is the powerful theme percolating through “Splash Hatch on the E Going Down,” Kia Corthron’s drama about the environmental hazards of poverty — waste treatment plants in Harlem, poor children eating lead paint chips. Although Corthron’s eco-message is worthy, the play’s didactic overload is its undoing.
Things begin encouragingly enough as we meet Thyme (Margaret Kemp), a smart 15-year-old pregnant teen who stands in bracing contrast to stereotypes about unwed welfare mothers. Thyme is married to 18-year-old Erry (Akili Prince), and they live with Thyme’s hard-working, happily married parents. Erry may not be Thyme’s intellectual match, but he devotes himself to his wife and to his health-hazardous demolition job. They’re not completely adults, but no longer kids either.
Thyme’s banter with her husband and also with her best friend, an unwed teenage mother named Shaneequa (Cherita A. Armstrong), possesses ample street poetry to lend the play a profane lyricism. That poetic impulse accounts for the play’s title: “Splash Hatch” refers to Thyme’s desire to give birth in water.
Too bad Thyme’s statistics-weighted proclamations make many scenes grind to a halt. Corthron has divided her play into numerous short scenes that are linked by sound designer Janet Kalas’ sounds-of-the-city montage. The ponderous snippets never build emotional momentum, the cast is unable to flesh out the roles, and director Marion McClinton fails to bring out the humanity within the polemical agenda.
Michael Yeargan’s Spartan kitchen and bedroom sets are backed by a David Hockney–inspired backdrop of water and sky. When slides of tenements are projected on the wall, the point about despoiled nature is neatly made. Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting enhances the meditative qualities of the backdrop, while Katherine Beatrice Roth’s streetwise costumes make Harlem come alive.