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A Tragic Tangling of Lives

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

It’s call-and-response, through the ages. The stories that endure on this Earth eventually assume the role of literary provocateur, prodding new generations of storytellers and playwrights to respond with their own brand of myth-making.

Every so often, as with Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Scarlet Letter"-inspired “In the Blood” (which someone in Los Angeles should do before the century gets any older), the response takes flight, in a style and language all its own. More often, even with a big talent at the keyboard, you get a half-and-halfer--not quite this, not quite that.

Back in 1994 poet, short-story writer and novelist Rita Dove answered “Oedipus Rex” with “The Darker Face of the Earth,” which relocates the central, cursed, incestuous narrative of Sophocles’ tragedy to the antebellum South. Dove’s theatrical instincts beam on and off. The results are uneven.

The California premiere, however, directed by Anthony J. Haney, is better than that. Haney’s teeming 19-member ensemble fills to bursting the American Renegade Theatre stage in North Hollywood. The best acting enlivens a somewhat recalcitrant text, in a production of the Fountain Theatre in association with Black Artists Network Development.

In 1820 South Carolina, Amalia (Jacqueline Schultz), daughter of a plantation owner, takes a slave for a lover and produces a son. Amalia’s sordid husband (William Schenker) conspires to kill the infant at birth; instead, the boy lives and is sold into slavery.

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Fatefully, after long ocean voyages and much education, Augustus Newcastle (Jason George) returns--in chains--to the very same plantation 20 years later. He spreads talk of revolution among his fellow slaves. Though he doesn’t realize it, his own father, Hector (Michael McFall), lives nearby in the swamps. Augustus is invited up to the house by Amalia. The rest, as they say, is trouble. One of playwright Dove’s poems refers to “the throne of blues.” Augustus isn’t the only one sitting on it here.

Dove pokes some fun at her own source material, when Augustus--discussing literature with his mother--says he finds the Greeks “a bit too predictable.” So is the play. Some of it teeters on the edge of plantation melodrama, though Dove’s sensibility is too consciously poetic for straight-up pulp.

Director Haney, who staged an acclaimed “I Am a Man” at the Fountain in 1996, heightens the play’s opportunities for spirituals, ritual and movement, threatening to turn it into a quasi-musical. He gets an especially strong assist from fight director Marty Pistone. For once, stage combat that doesn’t look like a game of Twister.

The leads have it toughest here: George’s Augustus and Schultz’s Amalia work hard to make emotional sense of the dicey slave-mistress relationship. (Dove’s rewrites since the published 1994 version attempt to make Amalia less heartless.) Their work is forcefully supported by, among others, Denise Dowse’s conjure-woman Scylla; Taraji Henson’s childlike Diana; Jeris Lee Poindexter’s don’t-rock-the-boat Alexander; and Clinton Derricks-Carroll’s boisterous Scipio.

There’s also a lovely performance from Joy DeMichelle Moore, who brings grace and dramatic ease to Augustus’ confidante, Phebe. Moore’s program biography says she’s “currently seeking representation,” as are a few other talented stage actors in L.A. Her work doesn’t scream out “Hire me!”

Maybe that’s why it’s good work.

* “The Darker Face of the Earth,” presented by the Fountain Theatre in association with Black Artists Network Development at American Renegade Theatre, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. (except Aug. 27 and Sept. 10). Matinees 3 p.m. Aug. 27 and Sept. 10. Ends Sept. 17. $18-$22. (323) 663-1525. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

Jason George: Augustus Newcastle

Jacqueline Schultz: Amalia Jennings LaFarge

Joy DeMichelle Moore: Phebe

Michael McFall: Hector

William Schenker: Louis LaFarge

Denise Dowse: Scylla

Clinton Derricks-Carroll: Scipio

Jeris Lee Poindexter: Alexander

Taraji Henson: Diana

J.D. Hall: Leader of Black Conspirators

Written by Rita Dove. Directed by Anthony J. Haney. Choreographer Marvin L.B. Tunney. Musical director DeWayne Knox. Set by Edward E. Haynes Jr. Costumes by Naila Aladdin-Sanders. Lighting by Kathi O’Donohue. Sound by Sara Bader. Production stage manager Sherie A. Lofton.


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