Victory Gardens Maps Out Fantastical Tale of Black Explorer Henson in Big Blue Nail | Playbill

News Victory Gardens Maps Out Fantastical Tale of Black Explorer Henson in Big Blue Nail
Victory Gardens Theater's first world premiere of 2008 — Carlyle Brown's A Big Blue Nail — opens Feb. 4 after previews from Jan. 25 in Chicago, telling the tale of African-American explorer Matthew Henson.
Photo by Liz Lauren

The play by the Tony Award-honored company is part of the troupe's "ongoing exploration of crucial moments in African-American history." (Henson and white explorer Robert Peary are also characters in the musical, Ragtime.)

"A Big Blue Nail is a phantasmagorical tale examining explorer Robert Peary's fame as the first man to reach the North Pole, which obscured the contributions of Matthew Henson, his African-American guide and companion, who could rightfully claim the title," according to VGT notes.

Direction and scenic design are by award-winning theatre artist Loy Arcenas. Performances continue through March 2 at VGT's Biograph Theater.

The cast includes Anthony Fleming III as Henson, Larry Neumann, Jr. as Peary, with Bethanny Alexander (Future), 13-year-old Scott Baity, Jr. (Tupi), Laura T. Fisher (Josephine Peary), Esteban Andres Cruz, Joseph Anthony Foronda, Narciso Lobo and Remigio Ortiz (Inuits).

The design team includes Jesse Klug (lights), Meghan Raham (costumes) and Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen (sound). Ellyn Costello is production stage manager. The play, according to VGT, "unfolds through a series of scenes shifting between the past, the present, the chaotic world of ice and snow on the Polar Sea, and the surreal landscape of Peary's guilt-ridden mind. Unacknowledged in the 1909 expedition's documentation because of his ethnicity, Henson returns ten years later to Peary's island home in Maine in search of validation. A chorus of Inuit men ritualistically take the story back in time to the day that Peary first met Tupi, the Inuit child trickster who promised to help Peary take his place among the world's great explorers. Peary's hallucinations, including strange encounters with a beautiful naked woman representing the Future, intermingle with riveting vignettes chronicling the difficulties, hopes, and ambitions of their dangerous, now-famous Polar assault."

This marks Carlyle Brown's VGT debut. His work has been seen at theatres throughout the country (including Actors Theatre of Louisville, where the Humana Festival presented Pure Confidence), and in Chicago at Congo Square Theater Company (The African Company Presents Richard III in 2006). In addition to writing plays, Brown has a history as a world explorer, having served as chief mate of the Gloucester fishing schooner Effie M. Morrissey, built in 1894. He also served as an Outward Bound instructor and captain of tall ships. His research for A Big Blue Nail included a trip to the arctic island of Igoolik in Baffin Bay, where he traveled by sea ice with an Inuit family and sled dogs. Today, he's a writer/performer and artistic director of Carlyle Brown & Company based in Minneapolis. His other plays include The Little Tommy Parker Celebrated Colored Minstrel Show and Buffalo Hair. He has been a teacher of expository writing at New York University; African-American literature at the University of Minnesota; and playwriting at Ohio State University and Antioch College. He is the 2006 recipient of The Black Theatre Network's Winona Lee Fletcher Award for outstanding achievement and artistic excellence.

For tickets and information, call the Victory Gardens box office at (773) 871-3000, or visit

Anthony Fleming III (front) with cast of <i>A Big Blue Nail</i>.
Anthony Fleming III (front) with cast of A Big Blue Nail. Photo by Liz Lauren

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