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JOSH L. HITCHENS
“It’s an old story,” as several of the characters say, and indeed it is. Like Madi Distefano’s Sweetie Pie at this year’s Philly Fringe, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Rita Dove draws on the ancient myth of Oedipus in her stunning play, The Darker Face of the Earth, now receiving its Philadelphia premiere at Temple University. Although the tragedy of Oedipus is clearly the inspiration, Dove creates a world that’s totally her own, transplanting the action to a plantation in the antebellum South while creating a powerful story about the complex and mutually destructive relationships between master and slave. This world is brought to vibrant life by director Charles Dumas and a brilliant ensemble cast. Darker Face is a play worth serious attention.
The story begins as the plantation owner’s daughter Amalia Jennings (Elena Bossler) gives birth to a black child as the result of an affair with Hector (Marquiz Moore), a slave in the fields. Amalia is a headstrong woman determined to keep her baby, partly to exact revenge on her unfaithful husband (Josh Bernaski). But confronted with an impossible future as the mother of a biracial child in the Deep South, Amalia agrees to send the baby away to grow up on another plantation. “I dreamed you before you came,” she says, “And now I’m going to have to let you go.” Hector, brokenhearted, retreats to the nearby swamp and abandons the English language his masters forced him to speak.
The return of guess who?
Twenty years pass. Amalia now rules the plantation, and heartbreak and disappointment have turned her into a tyrant who regularly beats her slaves and even uses them as furniture to sit and rest her arms on. Into this world comes Augustus (Damon Williams), a slave with a reputation for inciting revolution. And incite he does, gradually enlisting the other plantation slaves in a rebellion that can only end in bloodshed. And if you know the story of Oedipus, you can probably guess where this is going.
Dumas has a history with this play: He met the playwright at the show’s London premiere and played Hector in the New York premiere. His love for the story shines through in every scene of this endlessly inventive production. Dumas places all the action of The Darker Face of the Earth inside a magic circle in the center of Temple’s Randall Theatre, with the cast and the audience around it, watching the story unfold. The sound of drums is almost always present, driving and commenting on the action. Dumas weaves beautifully choreographed dancing and singing into Dove’s gloriously poetic language, leading to a truly visceral ending.
In character, even offstage
There is no weak link to be found among the cast. This is true ensemble acting; sometimes I found myself watching the actors who stood outside the circle watching the play, still rooted deep in character, sometimes creating the sound effects. Elena Bossler as Amalia conveys the terrible reality of a woman who gives away her child and then can never forget it, and Damon Williams excels as the fiery Augustus.
But the play unquestionably belongs to Joy Notoma, who plays Phoebe, a slave girl who falls in love with Augustus. When we first see her as a young child she radiates happiness, and then as an adult we see how sorrow and backbreaking work have taken their toll. She falls in love with Augustus even though she knows it is impossible, and because of him gains the courage to rebel against those who have enslaved her spirit.
The Darker Face of the Earth is an old story, but in this fantastic production it seems startlingly new. This is a play that makes you believe in magic, and as I left the theatre, stunned by the power of the ending, I overheard an audience member remark, “This is the kind of play that makes me wish I did theater.” Few plays can make that kind of impression.
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