Theater review: 'The Darker Face of the Earth'

A Pulitzer Prize winner and former poet laureate of the United States, Rita Dove has built her reputation on poems. Yet she is also the author of a play, “The Darker Face of the Earth,” which re-situates the tale of Oedipus as a steamy antebellum tragedy that plays out in the damasked bedrooms and scorching cotton fields of South Carolina.

On Thursday, the poet came to Atlanta for the opening of her sprawling, rarely seen verse drama. Kicking off the Essential Theatre Play Festival at Actor’s Express, the ambitious production is a mixed effort, which manages to cushion its uneven lead performances in a luminous choreopoem that shows off the strengths of a strong supporting ensemble.

A scintillating meditation on the shifting balance of power between master and servant, husband and wife, “The Darker Face of the Earth” transports the mythology of classical literature to the landscape of the Old South, which cultivated its own imitative and monumental style of Greek architecture, romance, heroism and war. Replete with a chorus, soothsayers, dreams and symbols, the play meanders a bit (clocking in here at about 2 1/2 hours) — trying a bit too hard to create a hybrid mix of Hellenic, African and Southern references. But ultimately, it evinces a withering tale.

It begins when Amalia (Sarah Onsager), the lady of the big house, gives birth to a child who has been fathered by the slave Hector (Sundiata Rush), who waits outside the house with a single rose. As the disaffected immigrant French plantation owner Louis (Joshua Waterstone) rages in an accent that seems to change depending on which room he’s in, the baby is soon dispatched in a hand-basket — a gesture that echoes Sophocles and the Bible.

Far from retiring to the fainting couch, Amalia becomes the tyrannical ruler of the plantation, eventually buying a slave named Augustus (Kenneth Camp). Though Augustus has a scarred back and reputation for trouble, he turns out polished and prince-like. By this time, Hector has been reduced to a mad, snake-chasing hermit; and Augustus, until the cathartic eleventh-hour revelations, is blind on the matter of his parents’ true identity. (You can probably see where all this is going.)

As directed by Betty Hart, the show packages Dove’s sumptuous poetry into a pleasing, nicely choreographed shape. But Onsager and Waterstone cheapen the effects with cartoonish acting, and Camp’s brooding take on Augustus never musters much in the way of charisma or fireworks. Some of the best work comes from the female ensemble: A. Sabrena Farmer as Scylla, Deborah Harris as Ticey, Akilah Arthur as Diana, Enisha Brewster as Phebe and Latifah Johnson as Psyche.

If Essential Theatre can’t quite smooth out the rough edges of this overreaching drama, it does a commendable job of displaying Dove’s glorious gift for language and storytelling.

Theater review

“The Darker Face of the Earth”

Grade: C+

Through Aug. 7. In rotating repertory with Peter Hardy's "Sally and Glen at the Palace" and Gabriel Jason Dean's "Qualities of Starlight." $16-$24. Essential Theatre at Actor's Express, 887 W. Marietta St., Atlanta. , 1-800-595-4849