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Darker Face of the Earth
a Play
by Rita Dove, directed by Betty Hart

COMPANY : Essential Theatre [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Actor's Express [WEBSITE]
ID# 3780

SHOWING : July 08, 2010 - August 08, 2010



Darker Face of the Earth
by Rita Dove, directed by Betty Hart
The Georgia Premiere of a stunning tragic drama by a Pulitzer Prize-winning African-American poet (and former Poet Laureate of the United States). The classic story of Oedipus is re-imagined on a slave plantation in the American South.

Adult situations, with some violence.

Director Betty Hart
Movement Coordinator Brenda Porter
Benjamin Skeene Efrem Whitaker
Click to Submit Cast & Crew Info for this production


Rota Fortunae
by Dedalus
Thursday, August 5, 2010
The power of myth, I’ve been told, rests on its ability to engage any generation of any society. Stories become myths when they can be retold in any context and for any culture. The Christ story is one, and there are those that say it borrows elements from even earlier traditions. Another is the concept of the “Wheel of Fate” (the Rota Fortunae) that sees the capriciousness and repeatability of fate as just random elements on a wheel spun by a bored goddess.

The Oedipus story is one of our oldest legends, and it has become an archetype well known to classical scholars and modern psychiatrists. It has all the elements of a myth – a larger-than-life hero struck with a fatal flaw and powerless to avoid his own destiny. Poet Rita Dove’s “The Darker Face of the Earth” sets the story in the antebellum south. All the elements are there, and their familiarity to modern audiences only enhances the play’s inevitable rendezvous with the Wheel of Fate. We know how it will end, and it won’t be pretty.

When plantation matron Amalia gives birth to a son, her husband is shocked to see its uncharacteristic dark skin. The child is quickly dispensed with and the story is given out that it was still-born. Twenty years later, Amalia has purchased a slave, Augustus, on the cheap, a slave with a reputation for intelligence and wanderlust. Hoping to “tame” the young man, Amalia invites him into the “big house” and proceeds to domesticate him in the only way she can. Meanwhile, Augustus has stirred up his fellow slaves with tales of a slave rebellion in Haiti, and trouble is on the way. Add into the mix an eccentric and reclusive husband, a half-mad slave who has hidden out in a local swamp ever since the still-birth of Amalia’s son, and a “seer” voodoo woman, and all the characters from Sophocles’ tragedy are in place, ready to play their pre-ordained roles in this tragic tale.

Rita Dove’s beautiful script integrates poetic choral segments, sudden violence, cruel disclosures, and music that runs the gamut from African rhythms to juke joint blues. There are moments of this play that absolutely soar with passion, with poetry, and with suspense.

What cools my appreciation for this production are a few unappealing casting choices. As Augustus, Kenneth Camp is a fit (and bare-chested) physical specimen, but he has a high, slightly lisping voice, which mitigates any power that should come. When he raises his voice in passion or in horror or in anger, the affect is more like a petulant child than like a tragic hero. Similarly, Joshua Waterstone’s Louis (Amalia’s husband) chews through a bogus accent that is almost entirely unintelligible. As such, his climactic scene with Augustus was a blur to my ears, and I’m still not sure what happened.

On the other hand, Sarah Onsager is absolutely wonderful as Amalia. Driven by passions and regrets and angers, she runs a full gamut from victimized mother to harsh slave-driver to tender lover. Her final actions, so like yet so unlike Jocasta’s fate in the original, comes as a surprise, and is fully satisfying for that.

Of the “Greek Chorus” of slaves, Enisha Brewster’s fiery Phebe is the standout. I loved how she stands up to Scylla (the “seer” woman) and to Augustus, and I only wish some of her energy had spread to the rest of the chorus, who, as a group, were wonderful, but as individuals, fell back on classroom recitation vocal patterns and monotones.

I really wanted to love this play, given its history, its pedigree, and its theatricality. I wanted to be swept away in a symphony of passion and doomed inevitability. As it was, I was more intrigued than engrossed, more at a distance than drawn into the story. Nicely directed with sharply choreographed moves and sounds and tones, it nevertheless failed to grab me by the soul, failed to blind me with any stabbing passions.

In this case, the Rota Fortunae came up just a bit short of the winning number.

-- Brad Rudy (

You're a patient man by uppermiddlebrow
That wheel of fortune turned so slowly I had to be awoken at half time and carried out. I wanted to like this play but once Augustus showed up it lost all drive and the pace slowed to a crawl. Also contrasting styles of speech - some TV potboiler, some Greek drama - were jarring.


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