It's a pretty intriguing concept: What if an 18th-century slave ship rose in front of the Statue of Liberty?
How would people react?
What would they think?
The concept has drawn a lot of attention to Daniel Beaty's one-man show, Emergency, which played at New York's Public Theatre before touring the nation. The show comes to the University of Kentucky Student Center's Worsham Theatre for a free performance Monday night as part of the Martin Luther King Jr. Cultural Center's African-American History Month activities.
Beaty says his concept was meant to explore a broad theme.
"The play is not very much about slavery," Beaty says from his home in New York. "Though there is a slave ship and there is some reference to it, I was most interested in what stands in front of our freedom as human beings — being free to love, being free to follow our dreams, being free from past pain.
"The Statue of Liberty is one of our greatest symbols of freedom, and slave ships are one of our greatest symbols of bondage. So I used this metaphor to ask these questions."
Beaty asks this through more than 40 characters, all played by him.
"I really wanted to create a varied expression of humanity through as wide as possible a lens," Beaty says. "So I came up with this community of people."
And in New York City, you can create quite a community, from the homeless person sleeping on a bench near Liberty Island to a corporate executive who works near there.
In reviewing the 2006 Public Theatre production, then titled Emergence-SEE!, New York Times critic Charles Isherwood wrote, "Beaty's writing for his central characters is compassionate and precise, and the more briskly sketched cameos are nicely steeped in satire. Beaty is also a fine singer, and the performance is punctuated with brief musical interludes. He moves with the easy grace of a man attuned to the rhythmic impulse that links music and poetry."
Beaty acknowledges that developing 40 characters in one man is a tall order.
"I used a lot of playfulness in my exploration," Beaty says. "How can my body change? How can my voice change? What are the different emotional perspectives?
"So it's a lot of exploration and play before I arrive at a place of truth for my characters."
The characters developed in several ways, Beaty says. For some of them, there was a central theme he wanted to explore, so he developed a character to take that journey. In other cases, he might have heard something said on the subway and decided to create a character around that phrase.
Other characters are just meant to be entertaining.
Although Emergency has something of a ghastly premise and tackles some serious ideas, Beaty says, audiences are often surprised to discover that the show is fun.
That would be in the tradition of some of Beaty's big influences: Whoopi Goldberg and John Leguizamo, both of whom have produced influential one-person shows that mixed humor and a message.
"I certainly have messages, which are that we are more alike than unalike," Beaty says, "and though we all have challenges, it is at the core of the human spirit to fight to be free."