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Burning Coal Theatre Company will present a bold, new interpretation of Waiting for Godot April 1-18 in the Kennedy Theatre in the rear of the BTI Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Raleigh, NC. Director David Henderson and an all African-American cast will employ a fresh approach to this 1953 masterpiece of the Theatre of the Absurd, a two-act tragic-comedy by Irish playwright and novelist Samuel Beckett (1906-89), who spent much of his life in Paris and wrote in French and English.
"I guess I first read Waiting for Godot when I was in eighth grade," recalls David Henderson. "Our English teacher had us read it. [Then in 1988] I saw Steve Martin, Robin Williams, F. Murray Abraham, and Bill Irwin do it in New York, which is probably why I love it."
The timelessness of the play and the beauty of Beckett's writing are two things that drew David Henderson to Waiting for Godot like a moth to a flame.
"It addresses so many issues," says Henderson. "You take away from the play whatever it is you bring to it as an audience member, as an actor, or as a designer. It think that goes back to some of the most successful productions were done in prison situations. When they asked the prisoners what Godot was to them, it represented everything from society to freedom. Whereas you and I go to see a production of it and Godot could be God or the devil."
Doing the Burning Coal production with an all African-American cast is exciting, Henderson says. He adds, "We wanted to tell the story in a nontraditional away. Typically, when you see Waiting for Godot it's four white guys and a white boy. The wonderful thing is, and I told my actors this, the story that we're telling is the same story that everybody would tell, but it has resonances that it would not have if it was done by you or I."
David Henderson confesses, "My commanding image for this play has been the blues, specifically the Mississippi delta blues. It started years ago with the Robert Johnson legend, that he went down to the crossroads and sold his soul to the devil in order to play the guitar. When you read the play, thinking about blues music, you realize there are a lot of similarities between the two: the repletion of key phrases, the outward signs of some inner turmoil. Using the outward signs of inner turmoil as a way to prove that you exist. If you feel it, it must be real; and if it's real, it exists. In the play, Estragon looks at Vladimir and says, 'We always find something to give us the impression that we exist.'"
Written in French 1949 as En Attendant Godot and not published in English until 1954, Waiting for Godot had its world premiere on January 5, 1953 in Paris at the Théâtre de Babylone, where it ran for 400 performances but failed to impress the French critics. It did, however, earn the enthusiastic acclaim of contemporary literary giants such as Jean Anouilh, William Saroyan, Thornton Wilder, and Tennessee Williams.
First produced in Great Britain in 1955, Waiting for Godot made its Broadway debut on April 19, 1956 at the John Golden Theatre, where it ran for 59 performances.
When the curtain rises for the Burning Coal production of Waiting for Godot, two tramps named Vladimir (Lamont Reed) and Estragon (Paul Garrett) meet on a country road near a bare tree, in the middle of nowhere. While awaiting the promised arrival of the title character, to stave off boredom Didi and Gogo reminisce, crack jokes, eat, and speculate about Godot — whose strange surname could stand for God. Their banter is interrupted, temporarily, by the unexpected arrival of the bourgeois tyrant Lucky (Thaddeaus Edwards) and his downtrodden servant Pozzo (Vaughn Michael). Then, toward the end of Act One, a Boy (Forte Brookings) brings Vladimir and Estragon a message from Godot: Godot will not come that day, but will surely come the next day. Act Two finds Didi and Gogo still waiting, waiting, waiting for Godot, beginning to think that Godot will never come, and becoming increasingly despondent and thinking about hanging themselves.
David Henderson says, "Waiting for Godot basically centers around two men waiting for someone or something to save them or deliver them from their current situation. Through the course of the play, they meet the other characters, and those characters provide a diversion from their interminable waiting."
Henderson adds, "Vladimir is a very cerebral man, always thinking, always trying to find reasons for everything to make sense of it all. Estragon seems to be the more innocent of the two, much more earthbound that Vladimir.
"Pozzo is fire," claims Henderson. "He comes into the world — or the location where Vladimir and Estragon are waiting — with an energy and past that is both frightening and compelling to Vladimir and Estragon. Lucky is Pozzo's slave, basically. He performs all of the tasks that Pozzo instructs him to, and we get to see in Lucky, in one moment, what's goes on in his head."
Henderson notes, "Lucky only speaks twice in the show. One time when he speaks it's for two and a half pages, and it's a fascinating but jumbled comment on mankind and his or her place in the universe. The Boy is kind of a mysterious character in that he presents himself as Godot's messenger, but we learn very little about him."
In addition to director David Henderson, a Burning Coal mainstay and one of the Triangle's finest actors, the production team for Waiting for Godot will include technical director Jennifer Becker, scenery designer Robert John Andrusko, lighting designer Christopher Popowich, costumer Jennifer Baker, and sound designer Al Singer. Staging Waiting for Godot will surely test the ingenuity and resourcefulness of each and every member of the production team.
"The set is going to be amazing in its simplicity," claims David Henderson. "Beckett basically described the location as a country road, a tree, night. So what [scenery designer] Robert John Andrusko has created is a raked stage with an amazing tree up center that flows out into the audience. [Lighting designer] Christopher Popowich has taken some images that I gave him and created some oppressive heat for the daytime moments, wonderful cool evenings, and amazing sunsets."
In describing the costumes created by Jennifer Baker, Henderson notes, "Vladimir and Estragon are dressed very similarly. They wear bowler hats, and they basically look like Laurel and Hardy. Pozzo's costume shows that he comes from better means than Vladimir and Estragon. Lucky's clothes don't quite fit him, and the Boy is dressed in a way to mirror Vladimir and Estragon."
Henderson claims, "One of toughest things about this show is the repetition. There is a lot of repetition in the play. Lines repeat, blocking repeats, and images repeat. The challenge is that each time the image repeats, you want it to be slightly different than it was before yet recognizable. That's a big challenge."
But he admits, "The largest challenge anybody doing this show faces is history, because so many people have been exposed to the play that people come in with preconceived notions of the play. One of the preconceived notions — or traps — of the play is that it's a tragedy. Beckett himself called it a tragic comedy, but there's a lot of very funny moments in the play. I think, sometimes, the challenge is allowing it to be funny and not think that, because it's Beckett, it must be played seriously."
In awarding Samuel Beckett the 1969 Nobel Prize in Literature, presenter Karl Ragnar Gierow of the Swedish Academy said, in part, "[Each of Beckett's] two masterpieces, Waiting for Godot and [the 1963 play] Happy Days [could be seen as] a development of a biblical text. In the case of Godot we have, 'Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?' The two tramps are confronted with the meaninglessness of existence at its most brutal. It may be a human figure; no laws are as cruel as those of creation and man's peculiar status in creation comes from being the only creature to apply these laws with deliberately evil intent. But if we conceive of a providence — a source even of the immeasurable suffering inflicted by, and on, mankind — what sort of almighty is it that we — like the tramps — are to meet somewhere, some day? Beckett's answer consists of the title of the play. By the end of the performance, as at the end of our own, we know nothing about this Godot. At the final curtain we have no intimation of the force whose progress we have witnessed. But we do know one thing, of which all the horror of this experience cannot deprive us: namely, our waiting. This is man's metaphysical predicament of perpetual, uncertain expectation, captured with true poetic simplicity: En Attendant Godot, Waiting for Godot."
Burning Coal Theatre Company presents Waiting for Godot Thursday-Saturday, April 1-3, 8-10, and 15-17, at 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, April 11 and 18, at 2 p.m. in the Kennedy Theatre in the rear of the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. Note: The April 3 performance will be sign language interpreted. $15 ($13 students, seniors, and active-duty military personnel). 919/388-0066 or http://www.burningcoal.org/Godot%20Tickets.htm. Burning Coal Theatre Company: http://www.burningcoal.org/. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=9133. The Beckett International Foundation: http://www.library.rdg.ac.uk/colls/bif/index.html. The Samuel Beckett Endpage (The Samuel Beckett Society): http://beckett.english.ucsb.edu/ [inactive 10/04]. BBC Biography of Beckett: http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/books/author/beckett/ [inactive 8/04]. On Samuel Beckett (from Pegasos Author's Calendar): http://kirjasto.sci.fi/beckett.htm.