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CurtainUp DC Report: November 1997
"America, America"

by Les Gutman

November DC Report Topics
NOTE:      November has shaped up as an especially busy month for CurtainUp in DC. So much so that I have split the DC Report into two parts: this early one and a later one which should be up before Thanksgiving. All of the topics, once posted, can be reached directly via the links below.

Working, by Stephen Schwartz et al.
The Darker Face of the Earth, by Rita Dove
Crystal, by Anna Theresa Cascio
Othello, by William Shakespeare - in Part 2
House Arrest, by Anna Deveare Smith - in Part 2
Splash Hatch on the E Train Going Down, by Kia Corthron - in Part 2
Web pages mentioned in this report
Links to topics covered in prior DC Reports and to DC Theater Guides

With one exception, this month's plays revolve around some aspect of that place we call America: North, South, urban, suburban, working class, political class and so on. (The one exception is Othello which, as will be seen, should prove universal enough to have great meaning in modern-day America as well.) A few interesting statistics: four of the plays are new -- all by women, three of whom are African-American. 
Our Impression of an Update: Working
An unexpected connection seems to be developing this year between Studs Terkel and theaters named Signature. New York's Signature opened its season with Arthur Miller's The American Clock, which draws its inspiration from Terkel's Hard Times. (This fact is disclosed in CurtainUp's review, a link to which you can find at the end of this report.) Here in DC, Arlington's Signature Theatre, which has won acclaim for rethinking musicals, has tackled Stephen Schwartz's problematic Working, based on Studs Terkel's book of the same name.

The original production of Working, featuring a young Patti Lupone among others, opened on Broadway in 1978 but closed after only 25 performances. Signature Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer has worked with Schwartz and his collaborator, Nina Faso, to update and improve the show. There are new working people, new songs and a new approach. The most noticeable changes: The intent of Working is to give a musical voice to the lives and values of the working people examined in Terkel's interviews (as now modernized). Schaeffer gives the revue some charm and a healthy sense of humor -- something as important to getting through the workday as it is to enjoying the show. Individual moments are often touching, several of the performances are excellent and, at 90 minutes, Working is certainly enjoyable. But, there remains an essential hollowness. Just as themes start to emerge, they are discarded in favor of a different tempo or a new concern. We are left with images but no message which adds up as good entertainment but not particularly good theater.

Much of the music remains from the original, albeit tweaked for the 90's. Working is (as it always has been) a collaborative effort musically. In addition to four of his own songs, Schwartz includes the work of a host of others: There are four by James Taylor, including "Traffic Jam" which was not in the original show; three by Micki Grant; four (including a couple of my favorites) by Craig Carnelia; and a particularly nice one with music by Mary (Once Upon a Mattress) Rogers and lyrics by Susan (Triumph of Love) Birkenhead. One of Schwartz's own songs is a spirited new one called "I'm Just Movin'".

Performances continue through December 7, 1997. The theater is located at 3806 S. Four Mile Run Drive in Arlington, VA. Telephone for tickets is (703) 218-6500.

Review: The Darker Face of the Earth
Rita Dove's poetry won her a Pulitzer in her mid-thirties; she went on to became the youngest (and first African-American) Poet Laureate of the United States. It should not be surprising, then, that her first venture into playwriting has produced an enormously powerful and beautiful work. The themes are intricate, the main characters full-bodied and the language -- oh, the language -- nothing short of stunning. What is surprising is that, with all of the above and with a premise that could easily lend itself to parodic or pretentious treatment, she has produced a play that imitates nothing, never takes itself too seriously and expresses itself (dare I say despite its monumental lyricism?) with clarity.

What else is not surprising is that The Darker Face of the Earth has all of the usual trappings of any mortal's first play: It takes too long to say things, leaves loose threads hanging in places and fails to pay enough attention to the purpose of some of its characters. I'm willing to forgive and forget these defects, especially if it will keep Ms. Dove from retreating back into the poet's corner. I see great raw material, and hope she will feel encouraged to use it.

The story, guided poetically by an African chorus/narrator (Saidah Ekulona), may seem both predictable and impossibly complex. It plays out as neither. The basic Oedipus story is retold on a South Carolina slave plantation in the first half of the 19th Century. Greek tragedy is mixed with American slave history, and then blended with African tribal spirits, the zodiac and even the French Revolution. The unlikely concoction merges quite naturally, emphasizing the playwright's notion that all cultures emanate from the same root.

The main story (also the most clearly told) is a tragedy grounded in miscegenation: A baby boy is born to Amalia (Felicity LaFortune), the wife of the plantation owner, Louis (David Adkins). Louis's joy is short-lived as he discovers that the baby is black, his father a slave named Hector (Ramon Moses). To avoid embarassment, the baby is sold. Twenty years later, the new owner has died and the baby, now a rebellious slave known as Augustus Newcastle (Ezra Knight), is again sold, back, by happenstance, to Amalia. (Amalia now runs the plantation. Both her husband and her lover have seemingly gone mad -- Louis has become a recluse, spending all of his time on the balcony of his room divining meaning from the planets and the stars, and Hector lives in the swamps, in a rage.) Augustus becomes Amalia's lover. Confronting Hector in the swamp, Augustus fights with and kills him. Later, as Augustus begins to discover some (but not all) of the facts surrounding his birth and sale, he murders Louis (thinking he is his father) and then, as the truth unfolds and as fate would have it, also kills Amalia. 

Other stories are woven into this familiar trajectory, each enriching the others. The lives of slaves, their feelings, beliefs and rituals, resonate with mythological cross-references. Augustus enters their parallel lives which center on a conjure woman named Scylla (Trazana Beverley) and young slaves named Phoebe (BW Gonzales) and Diana (Jacquelyn R. Hodges), as well as others. A slave revolt, inspired by tales from Haiti and the French revolution, and incited by Augustus and a group of revolutionaries lurking in the shadows, provides yet another undercurrent and a rumbling backdrop for the terrifying conclusion of the Oedipan saga.

The acting throughout is splendid, particularly on the part of the exceptionally charismatic Knight and in the remarkable rendition of the conjure woman by Beverley. (The latter spends the entire play bent over in the posture of one who has spent decades picking cotton, until she rises, metaphorically, amidst the torches and chanting of the other slaves seeking their freedom in the final moment of the play.)

There is much singing, ranging mostly from African tribal music to American spirituals, as well as the incredibly expressive beat of three drummers, hovering over the proceedings at center stage, executing Olu Dara's impressive score. Richard L. Hay's sets blend the Greek, African and South Carolina Ante-bellum traditions cleverly. Similarly, Michael Stein's costumes seem to flow seamlessly from African life to the plantation.

While most plays are probably better seen than read, I'm inclined to think this one may be a good one to enjoy on the page as well. The poetry is too good to experience only in passing. I am ordering an inexpensive copy of it. For anyone else so inclined, I'll include a link at which it can be ordered below.
by Rita Dove 
starring Ezra Knight, Felicity LaFortune. and Trazana Beverley 
Directed by Ricardo Khan 
Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theatre (202) 467-4600 
Web page address is shown below 
November 5 - 30, 1997

This month, Theater of the First Amendment presents its second world premiere of the season: Anna Thesesa Cascio's Crystal. It deals with the traumas of an adoption, when a comfortable suburban couple's dreams start to shatter.

This is Cascio's second play at Theater of the First Amendment. Her first was the well-received Rushmore, in 1993. She is also known for her work in musicals, including Cry to Heaven and The House of Martin Guerre (the latter, having been produced at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, is currently running with very good notices in Toronto).

Performances run from November 5 - 23, at TheaterSpace. Information (including directions) are available by phone at (703) 993-8888. Information is also available at the website, linked below.

Links to Web Pages Mentioned in this Report
CurtainUp's review of The American Clock
Kennedy Center website:
Center for the Arts (Theater of the First Amendment) website:
To order at The Darker Face of the Earth

©November 1997, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp
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