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Reviewed by:
  • The Darker Face of the Earth
  • William T. Liston
The Darker Face Of The Earth. Rita Dove. Oregon Shakespeare Festival, The Angus Bowmer Theatre, Ashland. 16 August 1996.

Rita Dove, the black poet who received the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and who was the United States’ Poet Laureate from 1993 to 1995, developed The Darker Face of the Earth in a workshop at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 1994 and it had its world premiere at the OSF in the summer of 1996, in association with the Crossroads Theatre Company of New Brunswick, New Jersey. Directed by Ricardo Kahn, the cofounder and artistic director of Crossroads, the play has been described, as Oedipus Rex in antebellum South Carolina.

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Figure 1.

August Gabriel, Tyrone Wilson, Davon Russell, and Kevin Kenerly in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of Rita Dove’s The Darker Face of the Earth, directed by Ricardo Khan. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

The Darker Face of the Earth draws on some historical facts, such as slave revolutions in Haiti and South Carolina, fleshed out with some additions by Rita Dove. A few moments after the play opens, we are in the bedroom of plantation owner Amalia Jennings LaFarge (Elizabeth Norment), who has just given birth to a black baby. On the advice of her doctor, she and her husband surrender the baby to the doctor, who will give it to a friend who will bring it up in slavery. The outraged Louis LaFarge (Mark Murphey), himself a philanderer, puts a pair of spurs in the basket with the baby before it is taken off, and then withdraws from active life, spending the rest of the play on a balcony outside his bedroom, in an expensive dressing robe, observing the stars through a telescope. [End Page 65]

Twenty years later, Amalia has another affair with a slave, a classically educated troublemaker named Augustus Newcastle (Ezra Knight) whom she had purchased despite warnings against doing so. During one of their love scenes Amalia remarks that the scars on his sides do not look like those from whipping—with which his back is covered—but appear to be ritual scars. Augustus says that he does not know where they have come from: he has had them from birth. All he knows is that he had a white father. Ultimately, during a slave revolt in which Augustus is coerced into playing a major part, he is required by the organizers of the revolt to kill Louis LaFarge, but before carrying out the assignment, he learns the origin of the scars. When he confronts Amalia with the discovery that they are mother and son, Amalia commits suicide and he goes insane.

The great strength of The Darker Face of the Earth is its excellent story line, enriched by the ability of Augustus, powerfully played by Ezra Knight, and other characters to evoke full human sympathy for the slaves. Also strong is Nadine Griffith in the role of Diana, a happy little girl who, like everyone else, is smitten by Augustus. After Amalia’s suicide, she goes to stab the corpse—a seemingly senseless gesture, unexpected from the child with the big smile, but also an understandably perverse expression of freedom after a life of repression.

But not everything works in The Darker Face of the Earth. Before the play proper begins, it is preceded by a short scene in which a black woman comes on stage and strikes the ground with a stick, signaling musicians in a cage at back center to start drumming. They remain drumming onstage for the entire play, suggesting the slaves’ tribal roots. In the early scenes there is also a good bit of chanting and the winding of long red cloths around the stage by masked black women, for which a clear purpose is not always evident. At times, such as when the slaves’ wrists are lashed with them, the cloths expressively symbolize their bondage. Often, however, the ballet of the red cloths seems merely decorative. The otherwise clean storyline here becomes obscured.

The Darker Face of the Earth is nevertheless a strong and humane play, and subsequent...

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