Tony® Award-winning African-American actress/director Trezana Beverley will make her PlayMakers Repertory Company directorial debut with an ambitious multicultural production of Salomé (pronounced "sal-o-may"). This sensuous and macabre one-act play, originally written in French by Irish poet and dramatist and world-class wit Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), focuses on two unnatural passions: the intense girlish desire that the voluptuous but virginal title character has for the scornful desert prophet John the Baptist and the unrequited lust that Salomé's lascivious stepfather, King Herod Antipas, has for Salomé.
Salomé caused a scandal when legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt tried to produce it in London in 1892. But the Lord Chamberlain refused to license the play, because it presented biblical characters in an unflattering light. (The biblical story of Salomé — but no mention of her notorious "Dance of the Seven Veils" — can be found in Mark 6:14-29 and Matthew 14:1-12.)
First published in French in 1893, Salomé was translated by Oscar Wilde's paramour, Lord Alfred Douglas, and published in English in 1894, with shocking sexually explicit illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley.
Oscar Wilde's controversial one-act was first performed in 1896 in Paris — to mixed reviews. Later, Hedwig Lachmann translated Salomé into German for use as the libretto for Richard Strauss' one-act opera, which was first produced in 1905.
PRC guest director Trezana Beverley, who won a Tony® for her performance in For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf on Broadway, says the PlayMakers presentation of Salomé will use Matt Di Cintio's brand-new translation of Salomé, commissioned expressly for this production.
To put her own distinctive stamp on this controversial tragedy, Beverley selected an interracial cast; and she will employ an eclectic mix of African and Asian storytelling techniques, dance, live music, chants, dress, and rituals to take Salomé back to its 1st Century A.D. roots in the cosmopolitan court of King Herod.
"PlayMakers and David Hammond share my vision of a performance technique that truly speaks to and reflects America's multi-racial community," Beverley said in preshow publicity. "It is my great passion to fuse rhythm, sounds, and movement with theater. Our Salomé is totally original, and I guarantee that no one has ever experienced or seen what we will attempt in this production."
In 2001, Trezana Beverley and PlayMakers artistic director David Hammond conducted an African-American Classic Theatre Workshop, with the assistance of the National Endowment for the Arts. According to preshow publicity, this workshop "explored techniques of African movement, dance, and ritual storytelling in relation to the performance of Shakespeare. Actors, dancers, and musicians from across North Carolina participated, and several Salomé cast members were drawn from the workshop."
"Being an African-American woman myself and an actress for several years now," director Trezana Beverley told Robert's Reviews, "I'm very aware of the lack of real platforms in the American theater for African-American styles of theater ritual. African-American actors have to fit into a Western model of doing theater, sometimes even when the plays are written about us and by us. I have felt that there's another kind of theater that embraces dance and sound and music and that is African and Caribbean based. We have not explored enough of that theater."
Beverley adds, "I see [Salomé] as a seamless ritual of theater and dance, with Coptic chants and drumming."
"There are times," she says, "when we have three things going on at once. For seven years, I have been working to incorporate African dance and performing styles into our [theater] art. Sometimes, there are three things going on at one time; but it all fits. It's something that you really have to see. It's hard to explain it. It's a very layered type of work happening in one's imagination."
In Salomé, Beverley says, Herod (PRC company member Kenneth P. Strong) throws himself a king-size birthday party, to which he invites his family, fellow Judeans, Israelites, Nazarenes, and a Roman. When Salomé (guest artist Beverley Prentice) sees the recently captured John the Baptist — called Iokanann the Prophet (guest artist Julius Hollingsworth) in Salomé — she falls in love with him, but he cruelly spurns her.
Beverley says, Salomé's mother, Herodias (PRC company member Kathryn Hunter Williams), already hates Iokanann, because the fiery prophet has denounced her incestuous marriage to Herod, as well as Herod's cruel acts and increasingly erratic behavior.
Well aware of her husband's open lust for his stepdaughter, Herodias arranges a steep price for Salomé to dance her infamous "Dance of the Seven Veils" for the drooling monarch. Herodias demands — and gets — the head of Iokanann on a silver platter.
Guest artist Dwayne Cyrus will play Naaman the executioner, and PRC company members Jeffrey Blair Cornell and Ray Dooley will portray the high-ranking Roman soldier Tigellinus and the First Priest of the Israelites, respectively.
"In staging Salomé," Trezana Beverley says, "the biggest [directorial] challenge is to create a story that happens in front of everyone, balancing movement on stage: the dance and the abstractions that occur. The genre is more that of an African fable, with the personalities of animals and the shapes of animals. We have animals in the show, but there're all played by human beings. There is a fablistic quality to our play."
Besides Beverley, the PRC production staff for Salomé includes choreographer Sandra Burton, set designer Corey Shipler, costume designer Marianne Custer, lighting designer Kenton Yeager, and sound M. Anthony Reimer.
Beverley says the PlayMakers set has two levels — with three playing areas. The set recreates the interior of King Herod's castle in ancient Palestine. "It opens out into a Middle Eastern courtyard," Beverley notes.
She says, "The costumes have a very strong African and Middle Eastern motif, and they are very colorful." And she adds, "The lighting is also very colorful."
Beverley says, "What I like best about the play is the real battle between the spirit of God and the heathen spirit. I like the battle between light and dark.
"I like the openness of the play," she explains. "Everything happens at once. It's not a play where you move from scene to scene. Everything happens in front of the audience: the music that we're doing and the choreography that we're doing in the show. The show is very choreographed movement wise."
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents Salomé Wednesday-Saturday, April 9-12, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, April 13, at 2 p.m.; Tuesday-Saturday, April 15-19 and 22-26, and April 29-May 3, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, April 20 and 27 and May 4, at 2 p.m. in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. $9-$27 (except $34 April 12 opening-night gala). NOTE: All tickets are just $9 on Tuesday and seating is first come, first served. 919/962-PLAY (7529) or http://www.playmakersrep.org/ticketspage.html. http://www.playmakersrep.org/salomepage.html and http://www.planetmonk.com/wilde/pdfs/salome.pdf [Salomé in English].
NOTE: On May 2 and 3, the Program in the Humanities and Human Values at UNC-Chapel Hill will present a seminar, "Oscar Wilde: Life, Times, and 'Salomé,'" that includes lectures, panel discussions, and a performance of Salomé. For more information, call 919/962-1544 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.