Daniel Beaty unfolds the premise of his energetic solo show "Emergence-See!" in its first minute: A 400-year-old slave ship from Ghana has suddenly arisen from the Hudson River and docked near the Statue of Liberty.
It's a striking, immediately telling image, worthy of George C. Wolfe's impish but pointed "The Colored Museum." And the spectrum of reactions Beaty portrays - embarrassment, exhilaration, disbelief - handily probe the still-unpurged ancestral memories of African-Americans, and index how far the race has, and hasn't, come since the Atlantic passage.
But this provocative what-if notion - a slave ship tied to Lady Liberty, get it? - is about the only idea Beaty has. He's so enamored of it that he's not content to let it float as a metaphor. Instead, he weaves the ship's significance into an earnest story about a self-hating, history-denying black professor who becomes a hostage of the phantom freighter's African chief, while the professor's two sons spend the play chasing down Dad and coming to terms with what it all means.
If the father-son drama at the center of "Emergence-See!" is a nonstarter, at least the youngest son, Freddie, manages to introduce a gallery of distinctive West Village oddballs: a loopy West Indian loafer, a sassy pre-op transsexual, a gravel-voiced bum who dotes on his pound cake. But older brother Rodney, who is missing an important poetry reading to rescue Dad, is an everyguy blank. And the less said about the professor's anguished teaching lessons with saintly Chief Kofi, the better.
Beaty is a compelling, fired-up figure, with a shaved head, close-set eyes, and a stirring voice. His apparent specialty is the hip-hop "slam" poetry he offers under the guise of a Harlem poets' cafe. Some are brilliant set pieces that could be lifted from the show without much damage - a fiery anti-bling aria, for example. But these begin to sound less like individual voices, in the manner of Sarah Jones' "Bridge & Tunnel," and more like coffeehouse shtick.
Beaty might reconsider his focus: The best moments of "Emergence-See!" are not these self-conscious performative arias but its variegated character sketches. Director Kenny Leon has shaped these moments with care and delicacy, framed by Michael Chybowski's lighting. Beowulf Boritt's jagged-edged, multilevel set evokes a collapsed building more than a wrecked ship, though the creaky, watery sound design of Drew Levy and Tony Smolenski IV suggests the latter.
Near the end, a beatific little girl named Clarissa retells a familiar fairy tale with a black-is-beautiful spin. "I made it up," she beams. "It's called Kinky Head and the Three Bears." Now that's touching, and in its modest way more empowering and incisive than 10 odes to wounded manhood.
EMERGENCE-SEE! Written by Daniel Beaty. Directed by Kenny Leon. The Public Theatre, 425 Lafayette St., Manhattan. Through Nov. 12. $50. 212-967-7555. Seen Saturday.