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Biyi Bandele's adaptation of Aphra Behn's novella about slavery proves to be a lively if often unconvincing play. logo
Albert Jones and Toi Perkins in Oroonoko
(© Gerry Goodstein)
In 1688, Aphra Behn, the pioneering female playwright, turned her quill to the thorny question of slavery with the novella Oroonoko. Now contemporary African playwright Biyi Bandele is offering his own stage version of Behn's work, Oroonoko, being seen at the Duke on 42nd Street in a Theatre for a New Audience production. Under Kate Whoriskey's direction, it proves to be a lively affair, while also being an uncomfortably haphazard one.

Everything starts promisingly for Oroonoko (whom Albert Jones imbues with fierce dignity and a brave soulfulness), grandson to Kabiyesi (Ira Hawkins), the King of Coramantien, and heir apparent to the throne. Trained since childhood by General Akogun (the multiply cast Ezra Knight in just one of three memorable turns) to be a warrior, Oroonoko has distinguished himself in battle and also maintained a healthy playfulness with his comrades-at-arms. When Akogun is killed in battle, however, Oroonoko's fortunes change drastically.

After agreeing to Akogun's dying request --- that the young man look after his daughter Imoinda (played with youthful charm and passion by Toi Perkins) -- Oroonoko goes to meet the young woman, and they fall instantly in love. Unfortunately, though, Orombo (a superlatively oily turn from John Douglas Thompson), the king's chief advisor, also knows of Imoinda's beauty and has told Kabiyesi of it, Now, the aging and impotent king decides that he wants the young woman for himself, and on the night of Oroonoko and Imoinda's hastily arranged wedding, the king sends for her.

At first it looks as though Lady Onola (played with nuanced flair by Christen Simon), Imoinda's surrogate mother, can waylay his advances, but eventually the young girl is delivered to Kabiyesi, who forces himself on her. In her resistance, Imoinda inadvertently kills Kabiyesi, and recognizing an opportunity to seize the throne himself, Orombo not only sells Imoinda into slavery, but also informs the British slave traders with whom he works that Oroonoko is an enemy to the state. If they capture and kill Oroonoko, Orombo promises the Englishmen unlimited numbers of his countrymen as slaves.

This action constitutes only the first half of the play, which in its second act moves to the West Indian colony of Surinam. Here, Oroonoko and Imoinda are unexpectedly reunited, experience friendship from Trefry (a mutedly intense David Barlow), an Englishman particularly sympathetic to their plight, and orchestrate a peaceful revolt after which they hope to return to Coramantien.

Without a doubt, it's a grand adventure tale -- and one with many moments that capture one's attention fully. Lady Onola's last-ditch efforts to save Imoinda are particularly effective, and when Oroonoko, Imoinda and his best friend Aboan (LeRoy McClain) debate the possibility of a slave revolt, the play and production crackles with intelligence and tension. Further, John Arnone's handsome set, Emilo Sosa's eye-popping costumes, Juwon Ogungbe's percussive original music (which is played live by Mar Gueye and members of the company), Warren Adams' energetic and ritualistic choreography, and Rick Sordelet's stylized fight choreography also command attention and heighten one's enjoyment of the play.

But as it twists and turns, Oroonoko strains credulity and feels remarkably unconvincing. One reason is the heightened, yet somewhat crass argot that Bandele has created for the Africans. Their dialogue is filled with litanies of similes that can sound as if they might come from fortune cookies. At the same time, Bandele peppers the dialogue with contemporary sounding exclamations and one-liners. Further, there is little to prepare one for the play's tragic conclusion, which fails to shatter audiences. Instead, it feels like an unfortunately sad end to an otherwise ripping tale and important historical literary work.

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