The Darker Face of the Earth

By Dove, Rita | American Theatre, November 1996 | Go to article overview
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The Darker Face of the Earth

Dove, Rita, American Theatre

About the Playwright

Rita Dove served as Poet Laureate of the United States and Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress from 1993 to 1995. She has published six poetry collections, among them Thomas and Beulah, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1987, and most recently Mother Love. She is also the author of a book of short stories and the novel Through the Ivory Gate. In 1995 the Library of Congress published her laureate lectures under the title The Poet's World. Ms. Dove is the recipient of many literary and academic honors, including a Fulbright scholarship, Guggenheim and Mellon fellowships, grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the New York Public Library's Literary Lion medal, the NAACP Great American Artist Award and 12 honorary doctorates. Currently, she is Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville where she lives with her husband and daughter. The Darker Face of the Earth is her first full-length play.

About the Play

The Darker Face of the Earth received its world premiere at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in July 1996 with the support of a grant from the W. Alton Jones Foundation. The production was directed by Ricardo Khan who will also be directing the play at Crossroads Theatre Company in the fall of 1997. The Crossroads production will be supported by a major grant from the Fund for New American Plays, a project of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The play has been published in book form by Story Line Press of Brownsville, Oregon.

Bonds of Fate An interview with the playwright by Misha Berson

You are best known as a poet. Is The Darker Face of the Earth your first play?

I wrote a one-act while I was in college, but it was strictly a student work. So this is my first full-length play. I always loved theatre, though, from the time I started reading. Shakespeare was in the house and I read those plays. Whenever I went to the library, I took out books of plays. My brother and I did little radio dramas. But theatre took so many other people and required such sophisticated negotiation skills, I never thought about going into it professionally.

What moved you, then, to write a stage script - especially one of such classical dimensions and epic scale?

I keep trying to retrace how it happened inside of me. Basically, I'd been reading a lot of plays and Oedipus Rex really troubled me. I wondered, why is it so compelling when you know everything that's going to happen at the beginning? You see Oedipus struggling against the bonds of fate that you know he can't overcome. Yet he becomes a larger and larger figure. I wondered, can there be a play like this in our time? Then I wrote it, and it turned out to require 17 actors, so I harbored no illusions that it would ever be produced!

What made you decide to recast the Oedipus story on an antebellum Southern plantation?

That was one of those wonderful epiphanies you get sometimes. I saw the institution of slavery as an allegory for the Greek pantheon, the gods who control everything from the beginning. There was an overriding sense that a slave in this system could not possibly emerge from it whole.

How closely did you try to pattern your play after the Aeschylus work?

I was not interested in doing the plot of Oedipus in blackface. I did wonder, what would these people have been like if they hadn't been in that situation? I also wondered about the power dynamic: How do you rule with a whip? With words? With dreams? One could look at Oedipus, or at my character Augustus, as a cynical schemer who did everything because he was hungry for power. But that's just too easy. I'm more interested in how humans can embody conflicting goals and emotions. We do it all the time.

Theatrically, you seem to be fusing Greek and African-American culture in a way that brings to mind that fascinating study by Martin Bernal, Black Athena.

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