- Private Battle, and: Woyzeck
Two recent superb adaptations of Woyzeck, at the Actors’ Gang in Hollywood and at the Avignon Theatre Festival, reconfirmed the elasticity and cross-cultural possibilities of Büchner’s dramaturgy. The American version, adapted by blues singer and poet Lynn Manning, is erotic and psychological in nature as well as a critique of the devastating effects of poverty and racism on black culture. Manning’s version was workshopped earlier at the Mark Taper Forum in 1994 and has been given staged readings at The Public Theatre, The Goodman, Minneapolis Playwrights’ Center, and the Audrey Skirball-Kennis Theatre. The Actors’ Gang production is its first full production. The wordless French dance-theatre production from the Théâtre National de Bretagne-Rennes, choreographed by Yugoslav theatre artist Josef Nagy, is physical and external, drawing powerful images from Büchner’s text.
Manning’s adaptation, Private Battle, retains the elusive density of Büchner’s poetry while reconceiving the play in a specific African-American context. Kevin Battle (sensitively played by Jon Clair), a young black man from south central Los Angeles, has joined the military to get out of a local gang. Stationed at Fort Campbell Air Force Base in rural Kentucky, Battle has a fiancée and a daughter in California as well as a relationship with Marie, a local girl, with whom he has fathered an infant son. He proudly supports both families without welfare. The doctor and the captain, Battle’s white employers, torment him with racial stereotyping (“when boys like you escape the ghetto, it seems you bring the ghetto with you”) and an obsession with his sexuality. The doctor’s experiments all involve Battle’s virility and suggest the Tuskegee, Alabama, syphilis experiments:
Homo Sapiens Africanus. As you well know, their virility is legend—witness our teeming inner cities. Such prodigious procreation is particularly African. The dark continent has given birth to some of the world’s most tenacious life forms: army ants, clawed frogs, killer bee—relentless reproducers all. So too Homo Sapiens Africanus. What better subjects on which to test our newest male contraceptives?
Such dehumanization of Africans also occurs in the carnival scene when the white barker describes Shabalala, the Gorilla Girl: “One moment she’s an African princess; the next she’s a snarling gorilla.” Battle describes this side show as “racist bullshit” and refuses to accompany Marie who is followed into the tent by Bernard, Manning’s version of the Drum Major: “Sister-girl’s too fine not to be mine.” Bernard, a carnival worker, is played smoothly by the six-foot, seven-inch tall Quentin Drew, whose scenes dancing with Marie proved highly erotic.
While closely following Büchner’s spare episodic structure and retaining some of his language, Manning has made a few significant changes. He adds a blind blues singer, Thelonius (played by Manning), a chorus figure whose songs comment on the action: “Left my blues in the city; blues come crawlin’ back to me . . . Woke up this Sunday mornin’, don’t know where my baby be.” Another important change is that Battle kills the baby after he stabs Marie (played with intelligence and vulnerability by Susan Patterson) and then receives a guilty verdict in the closing scene. Furthermore, throughout the play Battle repeatedly hears the children’s camp song: “She was bathing in the water and she got her ankles wet . . . but she didn’t get her (clap, clap) wet. Yet.” In the epilogue, with mist swirling around him, Battle sings the song slowly to the end (“she finally got it wet; she finally got her bathing suit wet”) echoing his journey deeper and deeper into blood, madness, and the socioeconomic devastation of his life.
Beth Milles’s imaginative staging enhances Manning’s text. Milles, who directed a critically acclaimed hallucinogenic Imaginary Invalid at the Actors’ Gang last year, uses the wide, shallow El Centro second...