I first read The Countess Cathleen as a 16-year-old," said director Ozzie Jones, "and it struck me that the Irish people in [William Butler] Yeats' play were facing a struggle similar to the struggle of blacks faced after the American Civil War." That's why Jones' staging of Countess for Philadelphia's Arden Theatre Company will transpose the play from 1800's Ireland to the antebellum South.
Indigenous African American and traditional music played on flute and percussion (by Damon R. Bennett and Vincent W. Rutland, respectively) will complement the production, which runs Jan. 16-Feb. 23. Jones got the idea for the adaptation because he was listening to a lot of blues music and reading African-American folklore. "To me, that's what Yeats' work sounded like."
Written in 1892, Yeats' first play tells of a wealthy countess who returns to her home after the devastasting conflict to find the villagers starving and poverty-stricken. Her humanitarian efforts run counter to opportunistic carpetbaggers, setting up a dynamic between rich and poor, good and evil.
"It wasn't slavery anymore," Jones said, "but they were still enslaved by...economic hardships...and the mental and spiritual damage they carried with them."
Yeats created the character of the Countess for his great love, Maud Gonne. Here she's played by Lisa D. White Jones, who has worked at Freedom Theatre, American Rep and Crossroads. Also starring in The Countess Cathleen are Sally Mercer, Robert Anu, Lenny Daniels, Kareem Diallo Carpenter, Sabela KuMathonga, Jennifer Childs and Pete Pryor, along with dancers Anthony R. Burrell and Hollie Wright.
Designers for Countess include Tim Dugan (sets), Ramona Broomer (costumes), Andrew Billiau (lighting), and L. Patty Bennett-Fox (props). Faye Snow will choreograph.
Jones, only 26, won Philadelphia's 1995 Barrymore Award for directing Black Nativity at Freedom Theatre. "His work is very dynamic," said Arden artistic director Aaron Posner, "and he shares the Arden's love of narrative and storytelling."
Though Yeats is best known as a poet, he wrote several plays and was a co-founder of a theatre society that eventually grew into Dublin's Abbey Theatre. For his works steeped in Irish mythology and Celtic cultural heritage, Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923.
After Countess, Arden will coninue its season with Aaron Posner's adaptation of Steve Lopez's novel, Third And Indiana (March 20 April 27), and a revival of Sondheim/Furth's musical, Company (May 15-15-June 29).
Yeats' six plays are: The Countess Cathleen (1892), Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), Four Plays For Dancers, including The King Of The Great Clock Tower (1934), and The Death Of Cuchulain (1939).
For tickets ($16-$24) and information on The Countless Cathleen, which opens Jan. 21 at Arden's Arcadia Stage on North 2nd St., call (215) 922-8900.
--By David Lefkowitz