By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
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.