Playwright Tarpley Long and director Tracy McMullan have taken on an extreme challenge in Dark House, their re-imagination of William Faulkner’s Southern Gothic novel “Absalom, Absalom!”.
Setting the play in Washington D.C. from the 1960s-1980s — and not Mississippi during the Civil War — they’ve stripped away much of what makes Faulkner’s book a classic, but they’ve also created the potential for revealing hidden race, gender, and class biases that people in liberal Northern states aren’t supposed to have, or at least show.
Despite their best efforts at a geographical move and a jump of 100-plus years however, Dark House still feels like “Absalom, Absalom!” wearing ill-fitting modern Northern dress.
In Dark House, the lead character Thomas Sutpen is no longer a slave plantation owner whose violent need to create an empire through a socially-acceptable male heir leads to his eventual death, he’s a land developer whose violent need to create an empire through a socially-acceptable male heir leads to his eventual death.
Like a dramatic version of Mad Libs, there are moments where it seems the script simply supplants Faulkner locations with local ones. Yoknapatawpha County becomes D.C., Stupen’s Hundred is 22 Logan Circle, and the French West Indies becomes P.G. County. Modern illnesses like breast cancer, AIDS, and anorexia are also thrown in for good measure.
Despite this problem, the staging and performances in Dark House are commendable, especially since many cast members take on several different roles.
Kashayna Johnson’s portrayal of Clytemnestra, the illegitimate mixed-raced child of Sutpen who spends her life confined to a home that she cleans daily, is particularly heartbreaking in its innocence and devotion.
by Tarpley Long
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Peter Boyer’s Thomas Sutpen also has an immediate impact. You hate him. It must have been an enormous challenge for Boyer to hold back depth and maintain a constant state of quiet rage. Michael Knowles also shined as both Thomas’ tortured son, Henry, and the handyman, Wash Jones.
The actors’ success proves that Faulkner’s words will always have power, but it also draws attention to a gnawing question: If you move an iconic Southern Civil War play to the capital of the Union and set it in relatively modern times — yet maintain all the same motivations, character traits, and plot lines of the original — how do you explain the deep-seated racism and power dynamics born from slavery?
The heart of Stupen’s darkness in “Absalom, Absalom!” is slavery, and the political, economic, and social impacts that such a practice has on the psyche of the people who experience it as victims, perpetrators, and bystanders.
In order to transport this story to a location and time that doesn’t have the same ingrained experience, you must have a comparable demon to that ghost of slavery that perpetually violates Faulkner’s pages. The fatal flaw in Dark House is that it lacks this fatal flaw.
Long seems to be grasping at a few possible demons that could work in the District. There’s the simmering racial tension that comes to a head in the 1968 riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King that left many parts of the city in ruins. But other than a short mash-up of television news reports from that era at the start of the play, it is rarely addressed in Dark House.
Another possibility is her exploration of land exploitation by developers and realtors seeking profits without caring about the history of a community. But this string is also undeveloped and it gets more confusing when she works in dialogue about D.C.’s McMillan Sand Filtration site. The racial and class tensions surrounding white flight and white return (aka gentrification) could certainly have been more developed.
Long received permission from Faulkner’s literary estate to create Dark House, something the estate has never done before, and they urged her to retell the story with fresh eyes. It’s a huge task that deserves praise.
But perhaps what the Dark House experiment tells us is that “Absalom, Absalom!” is like “The Great Gatsby” (in more ways than one), where only one time period and one location will do. Can you imagine Jay, Nick, Daisy, Tom, and Jordan anywhere else but New York City and its suburbs during the Jazz Age?
Can you imagine Thomas, Clyte, Henry, and Rosa anywhere else but the Sutpen Hundred amidst the ruins of war?