Like the astronaut in Planet of the Apes, Doug finds himself transported to a world which bears great similarities to ours, but which has a fundamentally altered civilization. In this world, blacks comprise not merely the dominant race, but indeed apparently the exclusive one, speaking a language which bears no resemblance to ours. This is awkward for white-skinned, English-speaking Doug. As quickly becomes apparent, Doug’s difference in language and looks from the dominant populace results in his being enslaved and/or treated as a pet (take your pick), and made a wedding gift. That’s where the audience first encounters him, after we witness the ceremony. It is no accident that the ceremony comes first; it gives us a chance to take in the resplendence of the scene. The costumes, the makeup, the music and sound effects, and especially the scenery are magnificent. This is a highly developed society, if one that is in certain ways barbaric, and its usages are of the utmost importance.
Archive for July 2016
The point is not merely what they and we have been through, nor merely that plus what we’ve all learned by going through it in a particular time and place. Perhaps most important, 20th Century Blues (notwithstanding its title) addresses, from the inside and the outside, the universal experience of aging, an experience common to all times and places.
We can understand that Charles, the ship-charterer, is a black man who believes himself superior to all the black people who surround him. Playwright Christina Anderson’s remarks in the program suggest Charles is an exemplar of America’s notion of exceptionalism. Of course it is all a charade. Charles is an alcoholic and an emotionally abusive father, his hidden project is morally objectionable despite his outward religiosity, and he either commits murder in the course of the play or abets someone else’s crime. The spectacle of a man with these specific hypocrisies being deprived of control over his circumstances is accessible as a dramatic action and as a consideration of the underlying racial and social issues. And it works dramatically.
There is so little movement, so few definitive changes in the lives of the characters over the one day the action covers; what was the secret sauce that gave the play its wide appeal? I credit two things: the banter, most of it delivered with an Irish lilt, and the cooking.
Playwright Alison Gregory has tried to tell the Medea story twice simultaneously: once in a pseudo-Euripidean mode as a revenge tragedy, once as a modern disquisition on motherhood. Given that slaying one’s kids out of spite is not a common experience, do these pieces fit together? It is not an easy call.
A lawyer whose services were sought by rich and poor alike, who could establish a rapport with his poor clients, who could communicate such confidence and engender such trust, and who could serve as a legislator chosen for “most of the leading committees,” and farm on the side, simply must have been an extraordinarily talented and fulfilled person. And, I strongly suspect, a happy one.