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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Waiting it out: Putting a fine point on Beckett's Waiting for Godot

Posted by on Sat, Oct 24, 2009 at 12:42 PM

click to enlarge Wendell Pierce (right), best known as "Bunk" on The Wire, played Vladimir in the original cast of the Harlem Classical Theatre production of Waiting for Godot. J. Kyle Manzay (left) reprises his role as Estragon this weekend at Duke.
  • Wendell Pierce (right), best known as "Bunk" on The Wire, played Vladimir in the original cast of the Harlem Classical Theatre production of Waiting for Godot. J. Kyle Manzay (left) reprises his role as Estragon this weekend at Duke.

Indy freelancer Sam Wardle attended opening night of The Classical Theatre of Harlem's production of Waiting for Godot. Here's his report.

Waiting for Godot

Performed by The Classical Theatre of Harlem


Duke Campus: Reynolds Industries Theater


Friday, Oct 23

"Why people have to complicate a thing so simple, I can't make out," playwright Samuel Beckett quipped more than 50 years ago about his masterpiece, Waiting for Godot. Oddly enough, I was left wondering, after watching the Classical Theatre of Harlem's retelling of the play as a Hurricane Katrina morality tale, if this new interpretation didn't go too far in the other direction.

While critics and viewers have spent the six decades since Waiting for Godot premiered wondering who symbolized what, and why, this retelling leaves little-almost too little-to the imagination. What was once a surreal work about, well, God knows what, the Harlem reimagining places the play's six characters within parameters we can all understand, or at least recognize: The two tramps are Hurricane Katrina refugees in a wasted section of the Ninth Ward. Pozzo is a white slave owner, a throwback to New Orleans' pre-Civil War days as a center of the slave trade, and Lucky, his slave, is, well, a slave. Godot is the federal government, coming too late-or not at all-to the city that it so badly failed, and Godot's nameless spokesboy is the media, or the White House public relations machine, or whatever polite arm of society it is that the master refrains from whipping. Or maybe Pozzo and Godot are one, two sides of the same frivolous, oppressive coin.

Indeed, if there's any doubt as to the thrust of this particular Beckett renaissance, the Classical Theatre of Harlem premiered this production to massive crowds in Gentilly and the Ninth Ward. It's a tremendous and inspiring example of sheer, almost inaccessible art finding voice in a current event, but it's not necessarily true to the original.

Beckett, to an almost maddening degree, declined to ever offer even the slightest context on his enigmatic play. He claimed to have no idea of the characters' back stories, and he refused to speak to any "meaning" he may have been shooting for, but it's fairly clear to me that Waiting for Godot was some sort of nihilistic statement about the human condition in general, and, specifically, modern life. He wrote a play that was surreal enough to avoid pigeonholing, and to keep audiences guessing, but it was also a bit of a bore. After all, nothing really happens: A few guys just play games and contemplate suicide while waiting for someone who never shows up.

Leave it to the surreal days we live in to make this weird stuff come to sudden narrative life. After all, isn't this a time when the powers that be drag their feet when the poorest among us suffered (Katrina), but leapt to attention when the rich caught cold (the bank bailouts)?

Given all of the above, while the Harlem production may be a simplification of Beckett's bizarre tale, it rings true, almost truer than the original. What Beckett wrote as an abstract play of ideas in the late ’40s sings when placed against the unreal backdrop of post-Katrina New Orleans. Set on a simple stage of hurricane debris and spray-painted track housing, Beckett's statements about the general dilemma of humanity become devastatingly specific.

"You can't drive such creatures away," Pozzo says of Lucky, in a whisper. "The best thing would be to kill them."

I was reminded, almost against my better judgment, of a once-less-annoying Kanye West, who on a Katrina relief telethon said something that sounded remarkably close to the truth: "George Bush doesn't care about black people."

A conservative might balk at this production's apparent intimation that the disaster of New Orleans was entirely to blame on an absentee federal government. After all, isn't this the nation that Alexis de Toqueville once admired for its citizens' self-reliance? Why can't the two tramps start rebuilding, instead of waiting for some guy who obviously has no concern for them to show up and lend a hand?

Fortunately, I doubt Glenn Beck has caught this performance on any one of its many stops along the East Coast over the last few months. Even as this production simplifies Beckett's material, it avoids easy answers or finger-pointing. It's not just the government that is to blame. It's not just Pozzo or Godot that perpetuate some kind of cruel reality. In fact, it's not clear that there's anyone to blame, per se. Instead, what we see is what we saw in our society's bungled response to a massive natural disaster five years ago: An extreme distillation of human ignorance, and its inability to identify with the sufferings of others. —Sam Wardle

The remaining performances of Waiting for Godot are Saturday, Oct. 24 at 8 pm, and Sunday, Oct. 25 at 3 pm, in Reynolds Theater at Duke. As of this writing, some tickets were still available to both shows. Visit the Duke Performances site for more information.

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