A 1992 Nobel laureate whose work is the extraordinary sum of disparate yet intertwining parts, black West Indian poet and playwright Derek Walcott grew up on a rare fusion of Shakespearean language and island patois that ultimately transcends all possible racial bonds. He's always simply written as a man first, though one whose abundant and perhaps misconstrued background provides an earthy, many-hued cultural sense. From that perspective, the lettered poet's echoing inspirations made perfect sense to Denver Center Theatre Company director Israel Hicks, an African-American man caught up in his own poignant quest to know who he is from the roots on up. Perhaps best known to Denver theatergoers for his ongoing work with the contemplative plays of August Wilson, Hicks, like Walcott, isn't interested in having his talents pigeonholed.
When the Hicks revival of Walcott's play Dream on Monkey Mountain, an Obie winner back in 1971, opens this week at the Space Theatre, Dream will partly appear to be what the name implies--the dramatized and transformative dream of West Indian charcoal seller Makak, enhanced in this case by the vibrant choreography of Denver Center for the Performing Arts affiliate Cleo Parker Robinson, African-American composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson's pulsing score, and stunning sets and tribal-inspired costumes from the imagination of Andrew Yelusich. But there will be more than poetry and joyous spectacle hitting the stage--it will also be an experience destined to lead audiences someplace closer to their own origins.
"There's a universality to it--no matter where you came from, at some point in being in America, you've got to take a real look at where you are," Hicks maintains. "You have a personal decision you need to make--how do you effectively move forward in time? Given that your life may be a wreck and your history may be a wreck, is that going to stop you? Is there always going to be a piece of you missing? I'm always in awe of people who can say, 'I'm a third-generation this,' or 'I'm a fourth-generation that,'" Hicks stresses. "I can't say that.
"I would like to know more about my great-great-grandfather, but when you seek to investigate your ancestry, most of those individuals are dead by now. Whatever history you have died in the mouths of those people.
"The displaced person constantly arises in this piece," he continues. "Makak has a fantastic dream about African unification and the back-to-Africa movement and then discovers that it doesn't work. There are questions asked: What do I do? Move forward in time and history, or do I get bogged down by my cultural and historical past? Those are the issues to wrestle with--the emotional and mental damage it does to people if we don't nurture their cultural identity."
In that respect, the Walcott venture fits Hicks like a tailored suit. It's just a different color of suit that requires adding dimensions to the typical path of dramatic action.
"There is a drama to it," Hicks allows. "It has to do with the post-colonialization of a culture. If you divest a people of their traditions, language and their gods, and then you replace that with something else, there's a price to pay. The price is usually one that forces you into a quest for identity, for a sense of belonging."
But Hicks in particular hails the opportunity to work with a script so opulently touched by Walcott's well-etched verbiage, something he researched in depth before tackling the play. Loaded with biographical and critical material from the Internet and the library, he's striven to preserve the Walcott lilt on stage, a poetic timbre essential to the playwright's intentions. "It's layered material--I love the poetry of it. I learned of his love of language and how he frames things, juxtaposing one image against another," Hicks says. "As a director, I have to be tasteful about which image I choose to emphasize over another and still be able to let the language ride free over it."
There were other challenges along the way. "The larger problem is in trying to combine two different disciplines--combining a dance company with an acting company and making it look like they all belong in the same place," Hicks says. And research alone isn't enough: Once done, there's the painstaking task of shaping the gained information to fit the dramatic current of a multi-fold stage production. "It's not a musical, yet it has music, and it's not a dance production, yet it has dance," he adds.
To that end, Hicks is enthusiastic about the new dimensions choreographer Robinson's collaboration brings to the overall project. "Actors and dancers work so differently--we have to find a middle of the road where we can all live together," he notes. "When we do a scene analysis, we have to define it both in acting terms and in dance terms--we have to co-define everything so that each side understands what we're talking about. It's been marvelous to watch the actors and dancers learn from each other--performers are sponge-like creatures."
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The desired result of that creative partnership is a multi-dimensional and sensual commotion that's both larger than life and indelibly connected to it. "The lines are clearer than in an August Wilson play," Hicks says. "Once you deal with dreams--and Derek says this himself--some of it is going to be illogical and contradictory." But that's okay, Hicks thinks: "It's part spectacle, part great music and great acting. It's also a story told in the tradition of storytelling, which often takes place around a campfire." And the director hopes the play translates with a similar degree of intimacy in the Space, a cozy theater-in-the-round.
Is Hicks accomplishing all his goals for staging Walcott's vibrant play? From the vantage point of the third week of rehearsals, he laughs. "I've either done it great harm or been a great help," he says. "But one always feels terrific before an event takes place."
Dream on Monkey Mountain, presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company, January 14-February 20 in the Space Theatre, Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex, 14th and Curtis streets, 303-893-4100.