What did the L.A. director of The Darker Face of the Earth think when the show, scripted by a former American poet laureate, debuted in Oregon four years ago? Truthfully, not much. “I had heard of Rita Dove, but had never followed her work,” confesses Anthony J. Haney, whose own staging of the piece opened at the American Renegade Theater two weeks ago. “But when I read it, I knew it was a big production, epic. It felt like it had the scale of a musical.”
Haney, 44, is a veteran actor, and managing artistic director of the Black Actors Network Development (BAND) theater company — as well as an accomplished director. (He staged Oyamo’s well-received I Am a Man at the Fountain Theater in 1996.) But Dove‘s lyrical yet discomfiting, singularly American take on the Oedipus story posed challenges that gave Haney and his actors plenty of pause. One consideration among many was how to make the central love story between a white slave owner and her black slave rise above the soup — generations old and thick as okra gumbo — of sexual and ethnic stereotypes and taboos that usually drown any possibility of a believable human dynamic. That the story was set in the context of one of the most seminal myths in Western literature didn’t help.
“You have this very intimate story of two people, but then you have all this other big stuff surrounding it,” says Haney. “It was hard just finding rehearsal time for Jason George and Jacqueline Schultz [the actors who portray Dove‘s Oedipus and Jocasta stand-ins, Augustus and Amalia]. But both actors came ready to do it. And they had no inhibitions.”
Haney says inhibition is at the dark — yet enlightened — heart of Earth; the racial aspect deepens the oedipal sense of shame and open secrets, but also mercilessly illuminates our own national mythology about slavery that, until very recently, we preferred to keep in shadow. “[Slavery] is our plague, and the show deals with our own inability to deal with the long-term effects of that plague,” says Haney. “Slavery has its effects still. When the play first premiered, the whole truth about Thomas Jefferson and his black mistress Sally Hemmings hadn’t come out yet. When I got to it, it had, and it became a root for a lot of my research, how I saw the play.”
There are complicated and multilayered themes that were often made even more so by Dove‘s elegant, though characteristically dense, language. Translating it all into a show that soars as much as it keeps its feet on the ground — with folk dance, depictions of violence endemic to plantation living, and other elements of realism — meant striving for a balance rarely attempted in dramatic treatments of the old South. Haney consulted Dove frequently for problems he encountered from working with a lyricist rather than a dramatist.
“There are passages where Rita becomes a poet,” he says, laughing. “There’s one monologue Amalia delivers about strawberries that‘s poetic, kind of abstract. I would call her and say, ’What is going on here?‘ As an actor, how do you act this stuff? We had a dramaturge who would do these Freudian analyses of passages like that, to make sense of it for the actor. In the case of that monologue, I added things to make it more real — a lantern, some wind, a sense of danger outside.”
Still, Haney worried about audiences staying with a play that mixed Greek melodrama about incest with an American drama about its own great incest that was rarely talked about, let alone put onstage. “I go back to slaves who had to suppress so much of themselves in order to survive. Augustus is a tragic figure, but he brings knowledge, and that is power. Ultimately, this is a triumphant story because people do gain their freedom.”
“Well, no,” he explains. “There is hope in the play, but the question remains: How do you get to freedom, get to Canada, get past the dogs that hunted slaves down? In some ways, we still don’t know how to get past the dogs.”