I really wanted to like Biyi Bandele’s Oroonoko. Aphra Behn’s problematic but groundbreaking 1688 tale of slavery and rebellion is one of the earliest English novels, and certainly the first to treat indigenous Africans sympathetically. Oroonoko, a prince of Coramantien (present-day Ghana, though, as Bandele points out in a program note, other elements of the tale suggest that it is set in Nigeria) falls in love with Imoinda, a woman whom the lecherous king (Oroonoko’s grandfather) wants to add to his own harem. After a series of related misadventures, Imoinda and Oroonoko are both sold into slavery and taken to Surinam, where Oroonoko’s royal carriage and innate nobility quickly set him apart. Oroonoko helps the plantation owners defeat outside invaders but then organizes a slave revolt and is eventually killed (after he kills Imoinda to prevent her further disgrace.)
While some claim Behn's Oroonoko as an abolitionist novel, others disagree and assert that her strong royalist sympathies are what drive the plot. Oroonoko, after all, is of royal blood, and it is his nobility rather than his humanity that renders his enslavement perverse. Regardless, the character is seen by many as the quintessential noble savage, seemingly without flaws, innately good and noble, worthy of great admiration but not sophisticated enough to prevent his own tragic fate or that of his beloved.
Working in part from Behn’s novel and in part from Thomas Southern’s 1695 dramatic adaptation, playwright Biyi Bandele intends his version of Oroonoko as an act of reclamation. Born and raised in Nigeria and living now in England, Bandele was commissioned by the RSC to write a new prologue for a production of Southerne’s play but ended up instead writing a whole new adaptation. Bandele’s most important contribution to the story of Oroonoko is to allow his protagonist to make some ill-advised decisions, and to show that he feels pain. Behn’s Oroonoko calmly smoked a pipe while being beaten to death, but Bandele’s Oroonoko bleeds, cries, and falls victim to his pride.
Unfortunately, while seeking both to humanize Oroonoko and to lend some authenticity to the tale’s African-ness, Bandele and director Kate Whoriskey have instead crafted a production that doesn’t quite know what it is or what it wants to say. The humor isn't all that funny, the eroticism not all that sexy, the tragedy not all that moving, the ideas not all that provocative, the poetry not all that elevated, and the danger not all that thrilling. This new Oroonoko, I’m sad to say, makes for a better press release than it does a play.
Whoriskey’s production, mounted by Theatre for a New Audience at the Duke Theatre on 42nd Street, is competently staged and features a number of successful performances. Particularly strong are Albert Jones as Oroonoko, Toi Perkins as Imoinda, and Christen Simon as Lady Onola, Imoinda’s guardian. The lights, costumes, and choreography are all professional and polished, but provide few truly memorable moments. Juwon Ogungbe’s percussion-heavy score, performed live by a small ensemble of musicians, is clearly meant to add momentum and excitement but instead ends up feeling, like so much else in this show, more like a gesture in the direction of a good idea than a fully-realized piece of work. Given all of the bland professionalism on display, it is little surprise that the aspects of the production that stick out most are those that are the least successful, like fight director Rick Sordelet’s strangely ham-fisted stage violence.
The end result is a mediocre production of an ambitious but disappointing play, a play unlikely to find an audience. With Theatre for a New Audience’s sky-high ticket prices (unless you are under 25) and a steadily mounting collection of negative reviews, Bandele’s well-intentioned adaptation of Southerne’s well-intentioned adaptation of Behn’s well-intentioned novel provides little more than, well, good intentions.