Out of Africa

Begging forgiveness from God and anyone else who will listen, a mortally wounded policeman staggers through the West Indian jungle and bemoans the "Africa of my mind" and "glories of my race." The mulatto corporal, ever aware that his mixed-blood origins effectively brand him an outcast among his fellow islanders and British officers, falls at the feet of a self-proclaimed holy man and whispers, "Forgive me, O father." Underscoring the rich biblical imagery that runs through much of Derek Walcott's Dream on Monkey Mountain, the holy man kneels over his fallen adversary and resurrects him with the words "They rejected half of you. We accept all." For a moment, at least, the hitherto conflicting elements of word, music and dance harmonically converge in a sublime and all-too-rare episode of plain and simple truth-telling.

A collaborative effort between the Denver Center Theatre Company and the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble, the Nobel laureate's two-act drama is being presented in the arena-style confines of the Space Theatre. Brimming with several strong portrayals, an array of stunning costumes and a few inventively staged scenes, the near-three-hour show sometimes proves captivating. Too often, though, director Israel Hicks's fantastical journey feels like an unguided tour through a poorly curated and cobweb-filled museum. In fact, as you wander through the serpentine maze of uncatalogued treasures and vaguely related artifacts, you wonder why the individual riches haven't been artfully arranged into a majestic whole that's more interesting than its disparate parts. Or why it's likely to require several hours of pre- or post-performance study in order for most audience members to determine the significance of the show's many abstractions and dream sequences.

Part of the problem is that the playwright repeatedly skirts accepted conventions of time, space and even dimension. As the drama begins, we're introduced to a pair of petty thieves, Tigre (Harvy Blanks) and Souris (Michael Rogers), who share a cell in their Caribbean island jailhouse. The two rogues trade insults with their keeper, Corporal Lestrade (Hassan El-Amin), a swaggering loudmouth who wields a riding crop and gets his jollies by interrogating and terrorizing a dreadlocked madman named Makak (Lou Ferguson), who maintains that he's the savior of his race. As the two thieves contemptuously offer vinegar to the so-called god of Monkey Mountain, Lestrade verbally crucifies Makak with the finer points of British law--"Ignorance of one's own ignorance is no excuse"--and dismisses Makak's messianic claims as a "rage for whiteness that doth drive niggers mad." (Of British and African parentage himself, playwright Walcott was born in Saint Lucia and educated in Jamaica; he later taught at Harvard).

Eventually, Makak leaves the jail and wanders into the jungle, where he meets up with his "business partner," Moustique (Allie Woods Jr.), a fast-talking Sancho Panza type. In spite of his twisted and heavily bandaged foot, the affable hustler vows to follow the quixotic Makak, who says he's been inspired by the divine appearance of an all-white female apparition (Susan Richardson) on his Gandhi-like trek to Africa. Along the way, the intrepid duo narrowly avoids disaster in the middle of a vibrant Caribbean marketplace and, in one of the show's most moving scenes, attempts to heal a young man named Josephus. Clutching a burning coal in one hand, Makak commands the boy's loved ones to kneel with him, only to subsequently admonish them, Christ-like, for being "too tired to believe in anything again. Remember, it is your own self [that] is your own enemy," he says. A few moments after Moustique tells the crowd that a deeper knowledge of their African origins will enlighten them, Act One ends with a bizarre procession of mythological and otherworldly figures--including a cricket player, a popish cleric, a whip-cracking bride in a carriage and a man with a goat's head who is accompanied by a chap wearing the head of a ram on his shoulders--that's as stupefying as it is fascinating.

After intermission, it's back to the jailhouse, where, after stabbing Lestrade, one of the escaped criminals pledges allegiance to Makak while the other, echoing Christ's final moments on the cross, rejects the would-be prophet. Following Lestrade's death, the entire ensemble performs a tribal ceremony in which the traditionally costumed Lestrade evokes the "back to Africa" sentiments of black nationalists such as Marcus Garvey as he bellows, "We have no time for patient reforms."

Director Hicks and choreographer Robinson elicit a series of compelling portrayals from their talented performers. Leading the company is El-Amin's riveting portrait of the doomed corporal. Blessed with a classical actor's voice and bearing (he delivered a solid rendition of the title character in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of Othello a couple of seasons back), El-Amin invests Lestrade with a smoldering bitterness that slowly develops into determined self-reliance at the point of his character's crucial transfiguration: When he sheds his starched white policeman's uniform in favor of a simple loincloth and bamboo spear, the actor's muscular physique and magnetic stage presence bring to mind a living, breathing version of the classic warriors in famed sculptor Malvina Hoffman's "Races of Mankind" series. As the plucky Moustique, Woods exudes both irrepressible charm and hard-bitten cynicism. When he declares to a group of grubbing merchants, "Pray for the day that money does not matter but faith does," you get the feeling that Woods perfectly understands the playwright's heartfelt message that being a good person isn't enough in a society that ruthlessly exploits the guileless and the naive. Despite some problems with his thick Caribbean accent, Ferguson endows his character with a down-to-earth lyricism that ennobles Makak's intriguing quest to attain spiritual and cultural fulfillment. And even though the dance sequences are not always as precise as they should be--at times they appear to be more of an ancillary aspect of the production than an integral part of it--Robinson's estimable company, led by the splendid Marceline Freeman, nonetheless embodies the underlying spirit of Walcott's dream play.

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