nytheatre.com review by Daniel Kelley
February 9, 2008
In adapting Aphra Behn's novella Oroonoko, Nigerian playwright Biyi Bandele compares his version to a 19th century adaptation by the famous English actor David Garrick: "Unlike Garrick, I'm not setting out to show the evils of slavery. That was relevant for his time but it's taken as read now. The play I've written has slavery at its heart, but it's also a simple story about a man and a woman, and how everything around them conspires to frustrate their love."
When all is said and done, this is almost exactly what is presented: a story of love between a man and a woman, in addition to the tale of a young man's battle with the responsibilities thrust upon him and the life he wants to lead. If you're looking for a play that's a call to action and a condemnation of wrongs past or present, then you may be disappointed. What you'll find here instead is a play that is thoroughly giving to its audience: it assumes the best of the people watching it—that the horrors of slavery are not something that needs to be retraced, but rather something that's etched into the consciousness of people in general. As a result, slavery can serve as a backdrop to a story without its importance feeling reduced or marginalized. In addition, Oronooko gives the audience the wealth of Yoruba culture—in all its splendor and all its horror—in a way that emphasizes the universal human drama of its people.This is an act that validates these characters and their way of life and keeps them from being seen as inhumanly absolute. Whether the characters are being lofty and poetic, or thoroughly horrible and cruel, it is all very recognizable and very real.
Oroonoko, in Bandele's adaptation, begins on the shores of Coramantien (modern-day Nigeria). Oroonoko, heir to the throne of Coramantien, is but a boy caught in the web of his country's politics. The Kabiyesi (king) has grown old and his sycophantic scheming advisor, Orombo, has his eyes on the throne. While Oroonoko struggles between his responsibilities as the heir apparent and his desire for a more normal life, he finds himself falling very suddenly in love with the maiden, Imoinda. They fall so hard, in fact, that the very night they meet, they are married. When the king denies their marriage—with a little prodding from Orombo—Oroonoko and Imoinda are forced to resort to desperate measures to stay together, only to end up bound as slaves in the New World. It would be a shame to give away more of the story but suffice to say that their actions, and the actions of those around them, are compelling, sometimes frightening, but always deeply felt.
Bandele's text for Oroonoko is a sort of wonderful blend of the very highly poetic and the very crassly crude. In one scene, he goes from a joyous celebration of marriage through an invocation to the trickster god, Eshu, to crude accusations of the king's inability to perform sexually. The imagery in either case is vivid and specific, and unique to the world of Coramantien. Toward the end of the play, the flowery, eloquent imagery gives way to the stark, bleak language of the world of slavery, and the transition between the two is striking and effective.
Albert Jones, in the title role, portrays the arc of the character well—he really hits his stride in the latter part of the play as Oroonoko grapples with his newfound circumstances as slave, and the difficult choices he has to make. The star of the first half of the play, however, is very much John Douglas Thompson as the scheming advisor Orombo. Thompson does a marvelous job of walking the line of this character, who is at once both hilarious and menacing. It would have been easy to go too far either way, but Thompson keeps the balance and really plays up both sides of the character.
Director Kate Whoriskey does an excellent job in bringing out the poetic rhythm and imagery of Bandele's text, and keeps a brisk pace throughout. Warren Adams's choreography is engaging and well executed. Emilio Sosa's costumes do an excellent job of evoking the world of Coramantien and its neighbors, as does Juwon Ogungbe's powerful and evocative score.
This production of Oroonoko succeeds in everything it is attempting to do—to tell a compelling human story in a way that shows these characters as complete human beings, with all their admirable traits and all their flaws exposed. For some, it may not be enough just to have a play tell this story without a deeper political message of what was done and what still needs to be done. But perhaps the fact that a play can be written now about the experience of African characters during the time of slavery, without needing to be about slavery, is enough of a message in and of itself.