After a week in residency at Duke University, the Classical Theatre of Harlem presented three performances of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot on October 23-25 in Duke’s Reynolds Industries Theater as part of Duke Performances’ “At the Crossroads” series. This touring production stems from a performance of the play that took place outside, in November 2007, in the Lower Ninth Ward of still-ravaged, post-Katrina New Orleans. This modern urbanization of the “blasted heath” staging that playwright Samuel Beckett calls for has struck a nerve, renewing the urgency and galvanizing the need of this still-unaddressed rebuilding process.
The opening-night performance of this show at Duke sold out. The four-man cast seemed to make something new out of Beckett’s classic play, as the actors worked their magic on a set made up of a crossroads, not in an empty, rural landscape, but at the intersection of two streets in a once-populated, but now destroyed, urban setting. A partial wreck of a home flanked each side of the crossroads, stage left and right, and Beckett’s single nod to nature, the requisite tree, stood upstage center. Though the streets were cleared, this was so only to their curbs; garbage and debris littered every other inch of the stage. This marvelous and arguably complex set is the brainchild of Troy Hourie of Classical Theatre of Harlem.
While the accepted interpretation of Beckett’s seemingly enigmatic title has always been Waiting for God, this production might more accurately be Waiting for Gov or government. But the agony, indeed futility, of the wait is just as destructive and demoralizing.
Estragon (J. Kyle Manzay) is known affectionately as Gogol to his companion, Vladimir (Billy Eugene Jones). It is evident from their easy familiarity that they have been together a long time; the script more than once mentions a span of 50 years. But time in this nebulous waiting game is itself nebulous; and events that should take place over time, such as the blooming of the tree or the oncoming of a character’s blindness, happen overnight. Beckett does not allow himself to be fettered by reality in this play; the reality experienced by these characters, and their resulting confusion, is chilling enough.
In both Act I and Act II, Gogol and “Veedee,” as Vladimir is called, meet the same pair of travelers, Pozzo (Christian Rummel) and his slave Lucky (Glenn Gordon). Veedee, whose memory is better than Gogol’s, remembers the pair; it is hard to forget, since their approach is signaled by a siren Pozzo keeps on his person. A deeper layer of meaning is added here in that, while, like the residents of the Lower Ninth Ward, three of our characters are African-American, Pozzo is white. Without any other reference, the indictment of the history of slavery in the U.S. is underscored; but in this context, Pozzo seems to represent a higher class of individual. He is well dressed, educated, and he has many possessions, evident by all that he carries on him as well as the fact that Lucky, fettered to Pozzo by a rope, is overburdened with baggage. The recovery, by Gogol, of the remains of Pozzo’s meal — a chicken bone — represents a twisted form of noblesse oblige. But even this requires that Gogol ask, twice, for the boon.
This staging of Waiting for Godot, directed by Classical Theatre of Harlem co-founder Christopher McElroen, makes a dynamic ensemble of these four talented actors. McElroen is careful to emphasize both the comedy and tragedy of the situation, and we find ourselves laughing, as well as musing on the obvious futility. Much is made of the shtick of cleverness with hats; Rummel makes Pozzo wryly oblivious to his fate or theirs; and at one point, Jones as Vladimir does a mean and sophisticated imitation of Michael Jackson, as he and Gogol dance and sing to amuse themselves. And Lucky’s THINK, a furious rambling of stream of consciousness, earned him spontaneous applause from the packed house.
But throughout the production is the waiting. Vladimir and Estragon cannot do, because they wait. This cast superbly drives home the agony of this endless process, even as the boy (a voice from the top of the house) comes to them from Godot at the end of each act to tell them “not today, but surely tomorrow.” Beckett tells us that this pair is stuck here, as surely and horribly as an insect caught in a web, waiting for death. Waiting for God. Beckett warns that mankind cannot be content in the waiting; that in order to survive intact, each individual must learn to do, instead.