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Complex Oedipus 

Rita Dove spins Sophocles’ tragedy into a Great American Saga

Wednesday, Aug 30 2000
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The Darker Face of the Earth -- former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove’s first full-length play, a 1994 adaptation of Sophocles‘ Oedipus the King -- adds up to so many chips off the old block that it actually creates a new block. A small monument, even.

In some ways, it’s an answer to author Russell Banks‘ lament, published in the June edition of Harper’s magazine, over the lack of an inclusive American creation myth -- a national project of the sort started by Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, carried further by William Faulkner, and then splintered into what Banks describes as a “Balkanized cluster of small colonies of the separately saved”: African-, Asian-, Latino, Native, Homo-, Lesbo-American sagas, each written by the appropriate ethnically credentialed or sexually oriented author, each portraying a part -- and none the sweep -- of the American diorama.

“The Greeks turn to The Iliad, the Romans to The Aeneid, the French to the story of Jeanne d‘Arc, the English to Arthurian legend, and the Jews to the Ark of the Covenant, the Captivity and the Return,” Banks argues. Whereas “Our stories of beginnings multiply, like the months dedicated by presidential proclamation to the special interests of one or another newly visible constituency.” The point being, as Derek Walcott once suggested, that We the People will perish, will be nothing, if we do not agree on whence we came.

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At the very least, Dove’s play offers a suggestion for agreement on whence we came, namely, out of America‘s Great Divide of race and violence. Thus, Dove imagines Oedipus the King on a pre--Civil War cotton plantation in South Carolina, forcing the old motherfucker into joining our continuing, floundering cam-a paign to reconcile the felony of slavery with the fairness written into our Bill of Rights. This is indeed the stuff from which an American creation myth might be conceived. For American slavery predates the first Constitutional Convention by some 150 years, and its effects have proliferated across the centuries in a saga involving everyone who carries a U.S. passport: Boston merchants, Mississippi crackers, immigrants from Galway and Phnom Penh -- not just victims and their woes (as in so much minority drama and literature), but victimizers as well. From each according to his status, to each according to his stamina; for almost half a millennium, masters and slaves have been forced together -- and apart -- by economics into the brutal American lock step.

The Darker Face of the Earth doesn’t actually embody all this, but at least it provides an approach. And it‘s the first play seen here in a long time to rebuild a classic, rather than gut the original via a strategically oblique “deconstruction” frosted with campiness. In other words, it has the courage and the conviction to be a takeon rather than a takeoff.

Sophocles’ play, you‘ll recall, is a murder mystery that starts with a drought. You may also recall King Oedipus strutting around Thebes, nostrils flaring, determined to get to the bottom of why the gods are so angry. A prophet, among others, tells him that he really doesn’t want to know. The problem is, he really does. Oedipus the King is structured with the breathless precision of a courtroom drama, a summoning of witnesses, each of whom unearths evidence of a deeply buried Oedipus complex.

Mr. Freud‘s rather ornate theories notwithstanding, Sophocles’ plotting is remarkably taut. Not so in The Darker Face of the Earth, which replaces the mystery with an epic construction. The cost is a kind of dragging, particularly near the end of Act 1. Drama buffs may feel fidgety. The benefit lies in the way the newly conceived symbols align into a poetical revelation. And that‘s a really big benefit if you’re poetically inclined.

So epic is Dove‘s adaptation that Oedipus, here renamed Augustus (the seething, charismatic Jason George), rather than launching his investigation, is, at the start of the play, just being born -- the mixed-race bastard son of the landowner’s wife, ivory-skinned Amalia Jennings LaFarge (a captivating performance by Jacqueline Schultz), and an African snake-trapper named Hector (Michael McFall), after the Iliad‘s “forgotten” Trojan warrior. Beautiful, blond Amalia has a thing for black men, a little quirk that will come back to haunt her in a couple of decades. (Yes, you can see it coming. No, it doesn’t undo the play.)

Her attraction to dark skin is almost as strong as her contempt for her philandering husband, Louis (William Schenker), who goes slightly insane after being cuckolded, closeting himself in his upstairs bedroom, slugging back whiskey after whiskey, and stargazing with the help of a telescope -- i.e., tracking the course of that old Greek destiny.

Louis‘ compromised mental state prods Amalia to don jodhpurs, pick up a riding crop and make sure the cotton gets picked through the 20-year gap between the prologue and Act 1 -- at the outset of which Augustus is (for obvious reasons) sent away. Through his youth, he works for a fatherly British sea captain, helping transport slaves from Africa to Charleston Bay in exchange for his eventual freedom. But both fate and a borrowed plot decree that he return, unaware of his parentage, to the swamp of his origins, in chains, with a back full of welts and very pissed off. For the promise of freedom died with his foster father, and Augustus was sold to the LaFarge plantation to pay off the old man’s debts. No glass ceiling here; rather, iron shackles.

Enter the Black Conspirators, a Mafia of the Carolinas (led by the Zeus-ish J.D. Hall), who, one muggy night, as part of an underground movement inspired by the revolution in Haiti, induce embittered Augustus into insurrectional plotting against white landowners. Augustus hesitates for about as long as it takes to blink.

Meanwhile, he‘s repeatedly summoned to Amalia’s bedroom. (Like Oedipus and Jocasta, both are ignorant of their blood ties.) Suddenly, a blight hits the crops, the weather turns foul, windowpanes are smashed in, blood gets spilled, and the mystery of origins -- both personal and national -- unfurls as tattered as a flag in a tempest.

Where Sophocles has us learn of Oedipus‘ horror through the eyes of the protagonist, Dove’s epic arrangement of scenes puts the potential horror onstage, before our eyes, starting with the prologue in which Augustus is born to Amalia, thus rendering us witnesses to the predictable rather than participants in the inevitable. A lyricism that‘s simultaneously musical, linguistic and visual becomes the substitute for suspense.

Director Anthony J. Haney appears fully cognizant of the play’s dramatic shortcomings, and makes heroic -- and largely successful -- efforts to patch them up. First, he employs a grandiloquent, operatic style of performance that is, at times, literally choreographed (by Marvin L.B. Tunney, and by Marty Pistone in the fight scenes). He also punctuates the action with a series of gospel and blues riffs, gloriously sung a cappella by his luminous ensemble of 19.

The play‘s poeticism is further aided by Edward E. Haynes Jr.’s emblematically two-tiered set, the upper story suspended directly over the lower, which adds visual resonance to the sight of Louis pacing upstairs while Hector simultaneously wallows after snakes in the marsh below. The two levels are linked, in a way, by slanting Greek columns made of slatted bamboo. Then there‘s the spray of cotton hankies splattering the walls, creating the wispiest veneer of gentility.

Finally, there’s Dove‘s language, which takes the cadences of black English and rarefies them into a pleasing literary essence that conjures both specificity of place and the universality of poetry: “What’s a coconut?It‘s a big, brown gourd with hair on it like a dog, and when you break it open, sweet milk pours out.Your stories stir up trouble, young man.”

The Darker Face of the Earth is unable to entirely escape the hackneyed images of Southern bigotry, such as the whip-cracking Overseer (Nathan LeGrand) who staggers around drunk while barking at the slaves to work faster. But these are more than counterbalanced by the sight of a woman running the plantation, upending an old icon of the male oppressor. (The master of the house is, in fact, impotent and AWOL.)

Most telling in Dove’s rearrangement of symbols, however, is the image of Augustus, in all his justified fury, rebelling -- albeit unknowingly -- against his mother, i.e., a part of himself. Sophocles‘ theme of blind pride returns transmogrified to a country both bonded and severed by blood, where black is white and white is black. We belong not only to ourselves but to each other. This simple truth lies at the heart of family, of nation and of Dove’s truly beautiful play.

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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