Slavery, fate intertwine in 'Darker Face'

November 11, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Sophocles and slavery come together with bitter poignancy in the first play by former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove.

Dove has based her elegantly written verse drama, "The Darker Face of the Earth," on Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex," changing the setting to the antebellum South. The visually stunning, music-laden production, co-produced by New Jersey's Crossroads Theatre Company, is currently at Washington's Kennedy Center.

Updating Greek classics for the stage isn't new. The most famous example is Eugene O'Neill's "Mourning Becomes Electra," which moved Aeschylus' "Oresteia" to post-Civil War New England.

But where O'Neill turned Greek tragedy into a study of extreme family dysfunction, Dove opts for a more substantial historical thesis. Slavery, she contends, determined fate in as unyielding a fashion as the often vengeful Greek gods.

In Dove's version, Oedipus becomes a mulatto slave named Augustus, born to a plantation owner's white wife and the slave who was her childhood friend.

Augustus' birth is depicted in the prologue, introduced by the character of a singing African narrator (Saidah Ekulona). She is joined by an expressive masked dancer (Tiffany Williams), who reappears throughout the play as an unspoken reminder of the immutability of fate.

The dancer holds up a swaddled infant, who is passed from one slave to another before being handed to a white doctor. He sets the baby's tragic destiny in motion when he persuades the infant's mother, Amalia (Felicity La Fortune), to turn the child over to a family who will raise him until he is old enough to be sold as a slave.

Twenty years pass, and Amalia -- who represents Oedipus' mother, Jocasta -- is now running the plantation and has just bought a new slave with whom she will eventually have an affair. The new slave, of course, turns out to be her unrecognized son, embittered, defiant but highly educated. (He has, in fact, read the Greeks.)

Ezra Knight's powerful portrayal of Augustus and La Fortune's imposing portrayal of Amalia are central to the effectiveness of this stirring production. Under Ricardo Khan's direction, they are well-matched, depicting their characters as similarly proud and flawed -- convinced of their superiority and, despite all available evidence, of their ability to control their lives.

The extent to which their lives are controlled by larger forces is symbolized in the opening scene by expanses of blood-red fabric that are strewn across the stage, then draped over the bed where Amalia has given birth, and finally turned into tethers for four straining male slaves.

These external forces are also symbolized by the character of Scylla, a conjure-woman portrayed by Baltimore native Trazana Beverley as a bent-over crone.

Scylla suffers from her own damaging sense of pride; at the end of the play, when her prophecies have come true, she stands erect -- even though her victory is hardly one to exult in.

Also central to the production's effectiveness is its stylishness, from the African-inspired choreography of Dianne McIntyre and music of composer Olu Dara to Richard L. Hay's set, built around the image of a giant mask on a raised platform, where a trio of drummers accompany the action.

One of the few places the drama falters is its ending, which veers from the Greek original (in which Oedipus blinded himself) but is still unavoidably histrionic. Although this problem is inherent in the source material, it might be mitigated if Dove's subplot of a slave rebellion were staged in the foreground instead of the background. This would also enhance the idea of a family tragedy as a metaphor for the larger theme of the far-reaching evils of slavery.

The poet, however, gets a great deal right in her theatrical debut. The production never lets you forget the rich heritage from which the slaves were cruelly uprooted. Nor does it let you forget the inevitable tragedy to which the play's main characters are headed. And, most important, by connecting the issue of slavery to one of the most fundamental Greek tragedies, "The Darker Face of the Earth" draws its own inescapable conclusion about the impact of an immoral institution.

'The Darker Face of the Earth'

Where: Kennedy Center, off Virginia and New Hampshire avenues N.W., Washington

When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 2: 30 p.m. Sunday; through Nov. 30

Tickets: $40-$56

Call: 800-444-1324

Pub Date: 11/11/97

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