After a 1996 world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Rita Dove's The Darker Face Of The Earth is starting to register strongly on the regional theatre circuit. Co-produced by the Kennedy Center and NJ's Crossroads Theatre Company (in association with Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which premiered the play), Earth opened at the Kennedy Center Nov. 6 and ends its scheduled run, Nov. 30. The show uses Greek tragedy as a thematic base for its look at black life in the antebellum South.
Dove, a former U.S. Poet Laureate (1993-95), received a B.A. in English from Miami University of Ohio and currently teaches creative writing at the University Of Virginia. Her 1987 volume, "Thomas And Beulah," netted Dove a Pulitzer Prize. Darker Face Of The Earth is based on her 1980 series of poems, "The Yellow House On The Corner," as well as on Sophocles' tragedy, Oedipus Rex.
Augustus Newcastle, a slave, escapes death and is promised freedom by a sea captain. The deal falls through when the captain dies and Augustus is sold right back to the same plantation. There he leads an uprising and struggles with his fascination for Amalia, the plantation's mistress.
Earth, though Dove's very first play, received a 1995 Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays grant. The play mixes blank verse with rhymed, conventions of Greek tragedy and African tribal rituals.
Starring in Earth are Ezra Knight, repeating his role as Augustus, and Felicity LaFontaine (Amalia), BW Gonzalez and Trazana Beverly. Ricardo Khan, who staged the world premiere, again does the honors, assisted by choreography from Dianne McIntyre, and an original score (based on West African drumming) by Olu Dara. Designing Earth are Richard Hay (set) and Michael Stein (costumes).
The Darker Face Of The Earth was published in 1994 in book form, a volume that came simultaneously to Crossroads' and the Kennedy Center's attention. Asked about the style of the book, Dove told This Month ON STAGE critic Simon Saltzman (TMOS, Late Fall 1997), "It just started to come out in verse, and there was nothing I could do about it." She had begun the play in the late 1970s and never expected to see it produced. Mixing Dove's "love for poetry and love of theatrical space," Earth tells "how human beings are trying to assert their individuality against implacable forces."
Continued Dove, "It was my 11th grade English teacher, Ms. Oechsner, who woke me up to writing. Also, author Derek Wolcott gave me invaluable advice, especially breaking that gab between poetry and playwriting, which he has done so well... I also recognize that people are going to be sitting in a theatre for two and one-half hours. We have to recognize that they will get tired, their shoes may pinch and that they need an intermission. That's all part of the experience of theatre, isn't it?"
For information on The Darker Face Of The Earth at the Kennedy Center, which began previews Nov. 5, call (202) 467-4600.
--By David Lefkowitz