Monthly Archives: August 2013

Amen Baldwin

During my recent trip to London, I had the opportunity to see James Baldwin’s Amen Corner at the Royal National Theatre (best theatre in the world, in my humble opinion). I had been familiar with Baldwin’s novels and essays but never his work for the stage. So this was an opportunity to dive into what was for me an unknown corner of the Baldwin canon.

Benefitting a show at the National, the production was magnificent. Both the gospel choir and jazz trumpet provided texture as well as counterpoint to the drama enacted on stage. Marianne Jean-Baptiste (of Secrets and Lies fame) was a revelation as Margaret Alexander, the pastor of a corner church up in Harlem in the 1950’s. Director Rufus Norris recreated Harlem of that era magnificently.

But what I went for was the play. And did I get a play. Written in 1954 after the author had completed his novel Go Tell It on the MountainAmen Corner distinguishes itself for the beauty of its language (this is Baldwin after all) and the complexity of emotions that inform that language. There isn’t a Caucasian character on stage and white America is rarely mentioned, but the audience can feel its presence. Those who attend and lead the church are, for the most part, domestics and servants. Church provides for them an escape but also an opportunity, even if one day a week or late at night, to take charge of their destinies. At the center of the drama are four very strong women who to one degree or another must negotiate the city and life on their own. There are no clear heroes or villains here. Even Sister Moore as she tries to undermine Margaret’s authority is often more tolerant of other people’s life choices than her pastor is.

Margaret is faced with a series of crises in the play. Her wayward husband, Luke (a jazz musician), returns home after a number of years. He is the opposite of everything Margaret in her role as pastor stands for. Luke, however, is dying and wishes to spend his final days with his family. Her son, David, does not wish to continue playing piano for the church, but instead wishes to be a jazz musician like his father. And then there is the rebellion led by Sister Boxer and Sister Moore. What unfolds are the myriad reasons — personal, emotional, intellectual, spontaneous, revelatory — that brought Margaret to a life serving God. Baldwin expertly intertwines all of these reasons to create a full-blooded three-dimensional character. If at that end, we still cannot fully embrace Margaret, we have a thorough understanding and respect of her. We know from Baldwin’s biography that he had a difficult time with organized religion, but he has the compassion to compose a thoughtful and well-balanced portrait.

Of course, as I sat in the theatre in London, I could not help but ask myself, “Why isn’t this play being done in America?” This is an important and vital work — more alive and less musty than other plays from this period we venerate — and tells an important story, like Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, about both the African-American experience and women’s experiences. So, theatre producers, find a way to put this provocative important beautiful play on stage here in the States. It deserves to be seen.

Brave New Malabar

The last show I had the chance to see while in London was Footsbarn Theatre’s Indian-style production of The Tempest at the Globe Theatre. In other words, a French company dedicated to employing circus and clown techniques was performing a Shakespeare play (at the theatre that recreates the Bard’s working space) utilizing Indian performance style while speaking in Hindi, English, French, and Dutch. If all that sounds quite dizzying or should at least qualify audience members for posts at UNESCO, you’d be quite right. But this Tempest — referred to by The Globe as The Indian Tempest — is a magical evening of theatre. If Footsbarn should call at your community, take time to see their production (whatever it is).

It is difficult to know how audience members not familiar with the play would react to this production. But as someone who is quite familiar with Shakespeare’s last text, I found it mesmerizing. The experience of seeing something at The Globe too certainly added to my enjoyment. We were groundlings that night, the air was cool, and St. Paul’s across the Thames was lit in splendor.

Reghoothaman Domodaran Pillai, speaking in a mix of Hindi and English, dominated as Prospero. He found the appropriate balance between sternness and softness. Gopalakrishnan Kundamkumarath as Ariel had the same language blend, and I often thought that he was more Puck than Ariel. But his very physical performance helped convey his character’s motivations if the mix of languages could not.

Footsbarn punctuated the evening with sitar music performed live on stage. The company recreated — by necessity, quite abbreviated — an Indian marriage ceremony for the wedding of Ferdinand (who, by the way, spoke French exclusively) and Miranda. Indian design dominated throughout.

Going in, I have to admit that I was a little hesitant about these choices. Frantz Fanon and Edward Said have both pointed to the importance of this play in the post-colonial canon. In brief, by using this lens, the Tempest dramatizes the colonizer/colonized dynamic as represented by Prospero, the European interloper, and Ariel and Caliban, the native residents. Footsbarn, though, nicely turned that relationship on its head. Here, an Indian Prospero was the master, and an English Caliban (played in cockney glory by Paddy Hayter) was the servant. A production can reveal a great deal about a play — especially a familiar one — by upending the world it depicts. And in doing so, this was the one Tempest that did what no other production has ever done for me — it brought the island alive, it became a character too. It was specific, mysterious — glorious.

The wonderful thing about theatre is (and what drives producers mad) — that a great theatrical evening comes together due to a very unique set of circumstances that are near impossible to recreate. So to write a review of Footsbarn’s production of The Tempest at the Globe may be a bit of a fool’s errand. But given the production, the performance, and the place, I had an evening of enchantment.

Beware the Green Eyed Monster

I am just back from London where I had the opportunity to see Othello at the Royal National Theatre (my favorite theatre in the world). Adrian Lester, whom I first assay the role of Rosalind in Cheek by Jowl’s exemplary production of As You Like It almost 20 years ago, played the Moor. And because he’s Adrian Lester he was excellent. But the standpoint in the production is Rory Kinnear (Tanner in Quantum of Solace and Skyfall) as Iago. Of course, Iago is the stealth lead of the play — he has more lines than Othello and the role is active while that of his commander is mostly reactive — but Kinnear has a unique take that places him as the Iago for our generation.

As with most RNT Shakespeare productions, this Othello is given a contemporary setting. Shakespeare sets most of the play in a Cyprus recently “liberated” from the Ottoman Empire by Venetian forces. So it was not a difficult conceptual leap for director Nicholas Hytner (on top of his game as always) to re-imagine the setting as a base camp for an expeditionary force stationed in a Middle East nation for one of the US/UK’s numerous military adventures in that part of the world. The frequent call to prayer by a muezzin in the distance cements the feeling of isolation of those stationed in the camp.

Othello and Iago are both officers in desert camo. Iago targets Othello not because of racism or the latter’s preferment of Cassio or for perceived advances on his wife. Iago does it because he’s bored! He stirs the pot because he has nothing else to do. Modern war fiction has often chronicled one of the greatest dangers of soldiers in the field: boredom. Hytner and Kinnear pick up on this rich seam and have used it to give motivation to Iago. And it works. It gives Iago breadth and depth.

A number of years ago I saw a production at the Delacorte with Raul Julia as Othello and Christopher Walken as Iago; you would think it would have been great — it wasn’t. Walken did his usual schtick, which wore out quickly. His Iago was this monster with blood dripping from his teeth in the vein of Richard III. That simply doesn’t work. Kinnear’s portrayal, however, is a revelation. Iago is just a bloke. He likes hanging out with the other soldiers, sharing a smoke or a bottle. Rather than being the paragon of evil, he manifests the banality of evil. He sets this all in motion simply because, well, he can. And that makes him more frightening.

In this production, racism — other than in the person of Brabantio — is not a factor. Othello’s command is multicultural. The person who sticks out like a sore thumb here is Desdemona. Once we are in Act II, almost everyone is dressed in uniform except for her; even Emilia is career military (which fits in with the production’s conception of Iago). That she is the only civilian isolates her and provides a reason for Othello to distrust her — especially since Cassio alone among the soldiers pays any attention to her.

Othello is often a difficult play to direct because once the Moor hits angry/jealous mode, it is difficult to find a new place to take him while Iago’s motivations are often difficult to nail down. The current production at the National, though, is lively, provocative, and unique while remaining true to  the script. A must see.