Some of the most renowned names in American letters will find their way onto the American Century Theater’s stage in 2012-2013. Among the strangest and most powerful: Orson Wells’ Voodoo Macbeth, a recasting of the Scottish play in the jungles of Haiti, which American Century will run between March 22 and April 13 of next year under the direction of Kathleen Akerley. The story of its initial presentation is almost as compelling as Shakespeare’s narrative itself.
Voodoo Macbeth was a product of the Federal Theatre Project, which itself was a product of the Depression-era Works Projects Administration. The FTP wanted to create a Macbeth with an entirely African-American cast, and so moved the setting to Haiti, whose voodoo, the FTP thought, would be more credible than medieval witchery. The FTP brought in the 20-year-old Welles to direct.
Although the very white Welles initially had some difficulty establishing a rapport with his cast, he gained credibility by dipping into his considerable personal wealth (he had already made a fortune in radio) to improve working conditions for the actors. He cast Jack Carter, a gifted actor with a criminal record and an alcohol problem, as Macbeth. In order to keep Carter’s drinking under control, Welles would hit the Harlem bars with him after rehearsal and make certain he kept his impulses in check.
Many believed that Welles was staging a burlesque version of the Scottish play, and there was a reaction. Welles’ rehearsals suffered from frequent picketing, and a man once tried to slash Welles’ face. But Voodoo Macbeth was the genuine article. Welles had even gone so far as to engage African drummers, many of whom had a complete knowledge of voodoo practices. The production sold out the Lafayette Theater in Harlem, and then toured the country before undertaking another New York run at Brooklyn’s Majestic Theatre. Reviews were almost uniformly enthusiastic, praising the production’s imagination and energy.
A notable exception: Percy Hammond of the Harold Tribune, who accused the actors of inaudibility. In response, one of the drummers created a Hammond doll, and stuck pins in it. Hammond died shortly after his review.
Although American Century’s other 2012-2013 shows do not have the exotic history of Voodoo Macbeth, they will include provocative work by provocative American writers. The season will begin with Archibald MacLeash’s J.B., the story of a banker whose life falls apart in parallel with the scriptural story of Job. In a circus-tent setting, a popcorn vendor and a balloon salesman assume the roles of Satan and God as they speculate on whether the self-satisfied protagonist will take moral responsibility for the turns his life has taken. This play, which won both a Tony for best play and a Pulitzer Prize in literature, will run from September 14 to October 6, 2012, under the direction of Rip Claassen.
George Kelly’s The Show-Off is next on the docket, scheduled for January 11 to February 2 of next year. This play, from the early part of the last century, tells the story of the exceedingly obnoxious Aubrey Piper, a nearly psychopathic liar and blue-sky schemer who squares off against his breathless beloved’s small-minded mother. This improbable matchup yields some extraordinary results. Kelly’s story was made into a movie twice (in 1926 and 1946) and as a play continues to be revived periodically throughout the country. Commenting on a 2002 revival at Metropolitan Playhouse provoked Martin Denton of nytheatre.com to observe, “The Show-Off feels modern and timely…the characters that Kelly captures so acutely aren’t at all old-fashioned; in fact, they’re archetypes for ways of thinking that come off as highly contemporary.” Stephen Jarrett directs.
American Century’s June show will be S.N. Behrman’s 1932 comedy Biography, in which a minor portrait painter of celebrities is given a $2,000 advance to write a tell-all biography. It is interesting to see how Behrman anticipated the present day. The New York Times’ Anita Gates noted the “many pleasures” of a 2009 revival. Steven Scott Mazzola directs this play, which will run from June 7 to 29, 2013.
American Century plans a summer musical, but details are not currently available.
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