Behind the tall, thin wooden beams that separate the mansion from the plantation grounds, the mistress of the house gives birth to a mulatto baby. Within minutes, the healthy infant is put in a sewing basket and carried off to be sold by the attending doctor. But not before the plantation owner and husband, enraged at having been cuckolded by one of his own slaves, drops a pair of sharp spurs into the basket in hopes of injuring or killing the child.
So begins The Darker Face of the Earth by Rita Dove, a powerful and captivating study of family ties, race, and the meaning of freedom. The Darker Face of the Earth had its world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 1996, and it most recently played at the Royal National Theatre in London. Coproduced here by the Guthrie Theater and the Penumbra Theatre, this searing play interweaves elements of Southern history with Greek mythology to create an American morality tale.
After the opening scene, 20 years quickly pass and the plantation mistress Amalia (Karen Landry) purchases a young, well-traveled, and educated slave Augustus Newcastle (Lester Purry), each of them unaware that they are mother and son. Even as they tentatively explore a mutual attraction, Augustus is joining with a rebellious slave faction intent on overthrowing their white owners by force.
This retelling of the Oedipus myth works on many levels, connecting the fate-controlled lives in Greek mythology and the slavery-defined existence of 19th-century America, the peculiar institution that circumscribed the freedom of everyone involved. Dove, a Pulitzer Prize winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate, crafts the story in dramatic verse and indelible images. Augustus describes the far shores he viewed when sailing with his first owner, a ship's captain, with typical eloquence: "The sand was so white, from far off it looked like spilled cream." When they lie together, Amalia gently refers to the scars on Augustus's body as "crowns" or "exploding suns," thinking they were caused by an overseer's whip and not the spurs that accompanied him on his postnatal journey.
Tensions increase as Augustus confronts Hector (Abdul Salaam El Razzac), an old slave who was banished to the swamps, and Scylla (Laurie Carlos), a "conjurer" slave woman who uses African ritual to take advantage of her own people. Throughout all this (and true to its Greek roots), the play features a chorus of slaves who murmur, sing, and move in synchronicity with the action. Choreographer Marlies Yearby and composer/musical director Cooper Moore both help evoke the oppressive environment of slave life and the occasional joy that emerged in song and dance. In particular, the mini-ballet of the slaves picking cotton, walking stooped over with their hands grabbing the plant with pistonlike precision, is at once entrancing and agonizing.
Director Lou Bellamy superbly conveys the image of brutal plantation life without falling into familiar stereotypes. The seamless ensemble production feels shorter than its almost three-hour length. The script fails only during the final flurry of action when the human tragedy of Augustus and Amalia comes rushing to a head.
At the end, the agonized Augustus is carried off by his fellow insurgents, and the tall, thin beams that separated the two worlds of that society remain in our memory. The production ends with slides of African Americans from slave times to the present day, in a brief but powerful reference to how far we have, and have not, come.
The story of Rashomon, like The Dark Face of the Earth, originates in the crossing of fates, and it, too, plays out as a violent kind of meditation on the limits of self-knowledge. Though based on two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Rashomon achieved its worldwide fame in the 1950 film by Akira Kurosawa. Now, the Pangea World Theater has constructed its own one-act adaptation of these stories--perhaps in search of its own truth--as scripted by local theater artists Meena Natarajan and Luu Pham.
In this telling, a judge (Christopher Danowski) and a woman (Kaori Kenmotsu) meet under the Rashomon gate during a rainstorm and he tells her of a case he tried ten years earlier that still troubles him. The crime involved a bandit (Danowski), a samurai (playwright Pham), and his wife (Kenmotsu) who had met accidentally in a forest. There is no doubt about the result: The samurai is dead and a sex act occurred. But was it a murder and rape, a tragic accident and passion, or something else? The same event emerges from three perspectives: the bandit's, the woman's and the samurai's (channeled through a medium).
In addition to including a woman in the framing scenes at the gate, this adaptation makes the wife a more complete character. She's assertive as she confronts the judge with her rendition of the event, and not the hysterical caterwauler of the film. To some extent, however, the actors imitate the nonnaturalistic performances of the film, relying on vocal bombast to convey their experiences. As the judge and the bandit, Danowski modulates his volume but doesn't indulge in any further nuance. Kenmotsu and Pham appear a bit more lifelike, particularly when they argue with each other about whether to get involved with a stranger.
Still, the story resonates when, after all the versions have been told and reflected upon, the judge says plaintively, "Wait, I have one more question to ask you." We all have one more question when it comes to divining the truth; we do not see things the way they are, but the way we are.