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Jeff Randall and Hollis J. Hayden Jr.
in Blind Ness
(Photo © Jonathan Slaff)
One of the central motifs of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is the inability to see, both literally (the novel's narrator, Marlow, passes through fog, gloom, and utter darkness) and metaphorically (the characters are unable to recognize the humanity of others or their own roles in a system of exploitation). OBIE Award-winning writer/director Ping Chong, along with co-author and co-director Michael Rohd, incorporates selections from Conrad's masterpiece as part of Blind Ness: The Irresistible Light of Encounter, a multimedia exploration of colonialism in the Belgian Congo. This ambitious project contains disturbing parallels to contemporary events but is ultimately dragged down by a meandering, incomplete narrative and uneven performances.

The most impressive aspect of the production is its visual imagery. Randy Ward is credited with the set, light, and projection designs while Stephen Kaplin is responsible for the puppetry. Scenes from Heart of Darkness are enacted as a puppet drama at various points in the show. One section utilizes a variety of stylized, distorted shadow puppet bodies to chillingly illustrate Marlow's discovery of a group of black workers who've crawled into a grove to die. This and other sequences have an eerie quality achieved through striking visuals and the slow cadences of the actors' amplified voices as they take on the roles of Conrad's characters. Chong and Rohd do not strive for realism; the voices often sound cartoonish and/or ethereal. Pre-recorded vocal tracks are also incorporated, most notably when Marlow goes to visit Kurtz's intended. Jenny Bacon provides the voice while two actors manipulate a Bunraku-style puppet. The effect is oddly moving.

Interspersed with these vignettes are scenes depicting the rise and fall of Belgium's colonial foray into the Congo. The action skips backwards and forwards through time as a number of historical characters are introduced, including King Leopold II of Belgium; Patrice Lumumba, the first Prime Minister of the independent Republic of Congo; and William Sheppard, an African American who established the first black mission in the Congo. The writers-directors offer a plethora of historical data, so much so that the documentary aspect of the show often overwhelms its theatrical viability. Additionally, the skewed chronology makes the action difficult to follow, although projections listing the date and location of each scene and other useful information help guide the audience.

Though most of the characters are historical figures, they are rarely fleshed out enough to give them meaningful substance. For instance, Roger Casement (played by Jeff Randall) is shown to be one of the key individuals who exposed the abuses perpetrated by Leopold's colonial administration. When the character introduces himself early on in the show, he acknowledges his homosexual orientation, but then that tidbit of information is never mentioned again. Casement's Black Diaries, published posthumously, reveal the author's preference for younger men of color whom he paid for sex. He walked a fine line, taking advantage of the relative freedom of the Congo to explore aspects of his sexuality that were deemed immoral in Great Britain while also contributing to a sexual economy that exploited the native men he encountered. Chong and Rohd neglect to deal with such complex issues, choosing instead to present Casement in a more straightforward heroic vein.

Sheppard, portrayed here by Bobby Bermea, is given a little more depth. He comes across as a fascinating individual who recognizes his own part in the colonial structure that perpetrated the abuse of the native Congolese. Sheppard's mission was facilitated by monetary and diplomatic aid provided by the Belgian government. In turn, his missionary work allowed the Belgians to make further encroachments into parts of the Congo that had previously eluded them. The missionary's photographic documentation of horrifying abuses -- which call to mind the U.S.-perpetrated abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, also captured on film -- was one of the primary reasons for Belgium's loss of control of the Congo. He presented his evidence at a 1905 Commission of Inquiry on the Congo Free State and yet this did not fully ease his conscience.

Blind Ness
(Photo © Jonathan Slaff)
A dramatization of the lives and careers of either Casement or Sheppard could easily fill an entire evening but Chong and Rohd's treatment seems cursory at best; fewer characters and a more narrow focus could greatly enhance the experience of Blind Ness. The production was commissioned and produced by the Kent State University School of Theatre and Dance. It utilizes a number of Kent State students in minor roles and as part of a chorus but the choral work fails to illuminate the already convoluted storyline.

Of the actors in principal roles, Caleb Sekeres makes the most vivid impression as CV, assistant to King Leopold II. His tightly controlled physicality and nasal vocal delivery contribute to a strong characterization while subtle fluctuations in his facial expressions make it seem like there's more going on behind his stoic façade than is initially apparent. Bermea is solid in the role of Sheppard and riveting in his interpretation of Prime Minister Lumumba; however, he is less convincing in other parts he plays. Similarly, Randall is fine as Casement but gives superficial portrayals of his other three roles. M. Burke Walker is rather flat as King Leopold II. Rohd, who is also an actor in Blind Ness, does not quite capture the fire and passion that other characters tell us exists within Edmund Morel, a shipping clerk who was largely responsible for organizing a grassroots movement condemning Belgium's abuses in the Congo.

Blind Ness tells a true story of colonialism that is still relevant. The Congo remains a politically unstable region, subject to exploitation by international corporate interests, and governments that condone or implicitly encourage abuse continue to exist. Yet Chong and Rohd have not managed to create a consistently compelling theatrical experience. Their project seems more like an overblown history lesson that is informative but not entertaining.

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