By Bob Shuman
The Emperor, Colin Teevan’s adaptation of Ryszard Kapuscinski’s reportage on the forty-four-year reign of Haile Selassie, from Theatre for a New Audience, now playing at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn until September 30, is more than an anti-Trump metaphor, although it does point to the impact of American politics on global theatre. The subject is perhaps as little considered in the West today as when, in 1973, BBC correspondent Jonathan Dimbleby documented the horror of famine in East Africa, and the dramatization, cleanly directed by Walter Meierjohann, which played at the Young Vic, London; HOME, Manchester; and Les Theatre de la Ville de Luxembourg, mostly told through small monologues, offers a compelling, modern history of Ethiopia, during the early and mid-twentieth century.
Kathryn Hunter’s Chaplinesque star turn allows her to play the “little man” as mime and social champion, which can remind of The Great Dictator and Modern Times. The audience doesn’t lose her when she talks, though, as they did when starting to turn away from Chaplin after hearing him speak literary English on screen. They revel in her throaty, deep voice and accents, and attune to her slightly crooked, if flexible, body, a puppet clown, playing the menials and servants at the court: from those among the pillow bearers to doormen; chauffeurs to clerks and ministers (Selassie is never shown or portrayed). Perhaps ironically, none of her creations is a woman–of any race; she is always a man of color, which may be daring, but would be criticized if the role concept was taken by a white male in the States, opening up an Actors’ Equity nightmare. Hunter is joined by musicians of Eastern African Krar, including Temesgren Zeleke, who spikes the evening with the sound of the electric lyre (the music is by Dave Price), unusual, penetrating, and rhythmic.
Doubtless, other artists will see the show and want to splice together anecdotes about the Trump White House, based on books by Bob Woodward, Michael Wolff, and Omarosa, but The Emperor concerns acting out lives lived in collusion, in order for a power structure to be maintained–blinding oneself to objective reality. Contradictorily, life outside the Trump administration is not a nation on its knees—it includes high employment statistics among diverse ethnic and racial populations. At an evening of forum theatre, called Antigone in Ferguson, which plays until October 13 at Harlem Stage, from Theater of War, where passages from Antigone are placed alongside powerful Gospel music, sung by, according to the program note, “diverse choirs,” who “include police officers, activists, youth, teachers, and concerned citizens from Ferguson, Missouri and New York City.” One participant was even brave enough to say, “many people like Donald Trump.” There was also a call made to vote during the midterm elections, which was not unanimously praised, room also being given to the idea, from one woman, that there was little interest in dismantling “a system that I did not make.”
Sophocles’ play, “about what happens when personal conviction and state law clash”—and which includes the dictatorial Creon–is simplified but clearly translated and adapted by Brian Doerrie, with musical direction and compositions by Phil Woodmore, who works with many roof-raising singers: soloists include De-Rance Blaylock, John Leggette, Duane Foster, Gheremi Clay, and Tamara Fingal. The cast, which will change weekly during the run, on September 15, included the following actors: Tamara Tunie, Tate Donovan, Chris Myers and Chinasa Obguagu. The audience, speaking their own truths, responded to questions, such as: “What crossed time about the story to touch you?” and “Do people have to die to come together as a community?” Many agreed that the arts are not involved enough in politics and that most of us see something or someone the way we are conditioned to, which may have been at issue with Michael Brown, in 2014.
This reviewer randomly wrote in the margin of his notes, during the audience participation section: “Art allows us to feel normal.”
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Theatrical historians who look back on our period and see the current fascination with dictators may wonder why theatrical imaginations were stoked by an American president who legitimately won the 2016 election and improved the economy to the point where the nation’s middle-class income had never been higher. What future investigators may not realize, however, is that theatregoers could have already stopped caring about the continual subtexts of propagandistic artistic choices, with plays by Brecht and Shakespeare’s evil kings, African dictators, or Ancient Greek resisters filling stages. Instead, the current cultural metaphor about Trump and fascism might have been rejected for something more persuasive: the fun of watching actors excel at creating challenging antiheroes found in the pages and entertainments of villainy.
Copyright 2018 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.
Photos (top to bottom): Simon Annand; All Arts; Harlem Stage