Near the end of Derek Walcott’s Dream on Monkey Mountain at the Guthrie Theater, an ad hoc tribunal convicts a long list of dead white people – Aristotle, Plato, Shakespeare, Copernicus, Galileo, Ptolemy, Sir Francis Drake, Christopher Marlowe, Dante, Florence Nightingale and Al Jolson, to name but a few – for the crime of shaping history. Having decided that the white version of history should be discarded in favor of a more African-friendly present, a huge white book – the great white canon – is wheeled onstage, whereupon page after page of oppressive white history is unceremoniously ripped out of the book, crumpled and held up to the audience for ridicule.
The Guthrie’s decision to stage West Indian playwright and Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott’s Dream on Monkey Mountain isn’t quite as bold a statement. But considering that Walcott’s play is the second work written by a black person the Minneapolis theatre has produced in its 31-year history (the only other one being Ceremonies in Dark Old Men by Lonne Elder III, in 1970), Dream on Monkey Mountain does represent a significant milestone in the Guthrie’s efforts to swing with the multicultural times. Indeed, Walcott’s vision challenges the very definition of “classic” theatre that the Guthrie has clung to for the past 30 years.
Hiring dancer/choreographer extraordinaire Bill T. Jones to direct the piece – even though Jones had never directed a play and was unfamiliar with Walcott’s work before taking the job – can also be taken as a sign that the Guthrie is willing to take a few more chances than normal these days. But as risks go, hiring Jones to direct was an extremely calculated one.
Naturally, the Guthrie wanted a dynamic treatment of Walcott’s play, but the theatre also sought someone who could incorporate Walcott’s own notions about the vital relationship between dance, music, poetry and myth emerging out of the islands, where a great deal of cultural cross-fertilization occurs. Though he wasn’t aware of Walcott’s work per se, Jones had formulated ideas about the connection between movement and metaphor, dance and poetry, that resonated with Walcott’s ideas. This theoretical affinity (coupled with the strength of Jones’s three-hour epic dance piece, The Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land, plus his more recent experience choreographing on a large scale for the Houston Grand Opera and the Glyndebourne Festival Opera) convinced Guthrie artistic director Garland Wright that Jones and Dream on Monkey Mountain were a good match.
Factor X was Jones’s politics. And racial politics is, in the end, what informs Jones’s version of Dream on Monkey Mountain as much as anything else. Jones makes plenty sure that none of the Guthrie’s largely white, privileged patrons can walk out of the theatre without making the connection between the pain of deracination at the heart of Walcott’s play and the rage of young black people in America’s inner cities. Reluctant to let Walcott’s work speak for itself, Jones even added an epilogue in which 10 black youths strut onstage carrying boom-boxes, staring defiantly at the audience. A slide of the Minneapolis skyline is superimposed over Monkey Mountain, while R. justice Allen’s rap-poem “Abou-Ma-La-Ka-Jonga” (“Deep, black, quiet rages passion/power or love justifies the action/A billion, zillion grams of pain/Ruthless, cutthroat, insane in the membrane”) blasts out and reverberates throughout the theatre.
It’s a heavy-handed tactic, to be sure – but effective, nonetheless. After all, Monkey Mountain is about one man’s search for identity, and how the loss of his African heritage, the brutal facts of slavery and his feeling of utter rootlessness in the world have made that search all but impossible. Related feelings of dislocation and hopelessness seethe in the souls of young urban blacks everywhere in America – the news is filled with the fallout every day – but Jones apparently felt that he had to add an exclamation point to Walcott’s play in order for the message to get through. And even then, Jones is dubious. In the program notes, Jones discusses his frustration with the limitations of art:
“In my work I have always attempted to question where |art’ ends and where social activism begins,” writes Jones. “My challenge as an artist is to create a new language of social discourse that challenges us to step over the line that exists between art and life and commit ourselves to our own personal journey.”
For Makak (Steven A. Jones), the main character in Monkey Mountain, that journey begins by being thrown in jail for drunk and disorderly conduct. Under interrogation, Makak explains that an apparition has summoned him to reclaim his destiny as the descendant of African kings. As Makak falls asleep in a drunken stupor, he begins to dream of his heroic descent from Monkey Mountain and his return to Africa, where he is ultimately crowned king.
Makak’s real-life journey is not so grand. As a man of African descent, Makak feels belittled, trampled on and discriminated against. His pride was long ago drowned in rum. His opportunities in life have been almost nonexistent. Before the apparition motivated him to reclaim his destiny, he was just another angry African soul wandering through life without purpose or direction, selling coal to survive.
Because most of Makak’s journey toward self-discovery takes place in a dream, Jones places the action squarely in the territory of symbol and metaphor. The sheer white hugeness of the snowy mountain peak that dominates the stage in the play’s first act is a silent and powerful evocation of the white oppression it symbolizes. And when the white shroud of parachute silk is eventually removed, underneath sits an enormous figure, 18 feet high and 12 feet wide – an outrageously enlarged version of an old Negro coin-bank figurine. Its eyes red with rage, its tongue a long white ribbon of smoke, the statue sits Buddha-like in the background, watching over the rest of the play as an inexorable symbol of the ultimate African stereotype – a gigantic representation of all the prejudices, stupidities, dehumanizations and injustices that expatriated African descendants have been forced to endure all over the world during the past 500 years.
A beam of light
In a flamboyant climactic scene, when Makak is crowned king of Africa, the statue is draped in golden shrouds that stretch from one end of the theatre to the other. Characters from Makak’s journey are perched on the statue’s arms, shoulders and head, and Makak, dressed in a gleaming white military uniform, stands in the statue’s hand, where the coin would normally go (echoing the opening song’s refrain, “Money Is King”). Makak hears the angry charges made against the great white shapers of history and the tribunal’s unanimous verdict to “Hang them!” But the reasoning of Makak’s murdered friend Moustique (Omari Shakir, who floats down from the ceiling, draped in blood-soaked sheets) prevents the newly crowned king from giving the final execution orders against the white race he loathes so much. Instead, Makak vows to break the cycle of violence and turn inward to destroy the apparition that haunts his own soul.
Though Jones goes out of his way to remind us that black rage is still alive and festering in urban America, he has in fact toned down the play’s animosity toward whites in order to emphasize the spiritual dimensions of black powerlessness. Originally written in 1967 at the peak of the Civil Rights Movement in America, the play makes Makak’s apparition a white woman, whom he must kill to free himself. In Jones’s version, the apparition is a beam of light, not a woman, a change Jones says he made after Maya Angelou convinced him that ritually sacrificing white women onstage in African-American theatre has been done so often that it is now cliche.
What Jones is best known for, of course, is dance, and for his Guthrie directing debut he brought six dancers from the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company with him. But to his credit, Jones did not dress Monkey Mountain in flashy, experimental choreography and turn Makak’s journey into his own ego trip. Rather Jones did what a good director does: He paid scrupulous attention to the mood and spirit of each scene, then choreographed accordingly.
In the market scene, for example, Jones achieves a feeling of hustle and bustle with understated flourishes and complementary movement – the players whirl around the marketplace, passing watermelons back and forth in graceful arcs, hoisting each other like sacks of grain, creating the illusion of a busy marketplace. There is just enough order in the dancer’s movements to delight the eye, but not so much that the choreography calls attention to itself.
Jones also finds ways to liven up even the quietest scenes. When Makak and Moustique are chatting in the forest, dancers dressed head to toe in leaves lie prostrate on the stage, moving ever so slowly, making the forest seem as if it is alive and in constant flux.
If there is a shortcoming in Jones’s direction, it is that so much attention has been paid to the incidental choreography that the spiritual journey of the main character sometimes gets lost in the details. Without a full exploration of the dynamics of Makak’s inner struggle, the impact of the climactic moment is diminished: Makak’s desperation to set himself free is still heartbreaking, just not quite the howl from the pit of the soul one might expect or desire.
This unnerving sense that Makak’s final act of heroism doesn’t hit the heart as hard or as deep as it should is, one suspects, why Jones decided to punch up his version with a stage full of angry, rap-enthralled teenagers staring defiantly out at the Guthrie’s alabaster audience. The normal limitations of art usually allow such audiences to leave whatever dangerous ideas they have encountered in a play inside the theatre, where they are safe. What better way to make a play hit home than to actually bring it home?