Oroonoko at the Duke on 42nd Street


If I may briefly interrupt this discussion–  

For anyone anywhere near NYC, a rare opportunity to see Biyi Bandele’s intriguing adaption of Oroonoko, directed by Kate Whoriskey at the Duke Theatre. 

     Biyi Bandele’s Oronooko (1999), originally written for the Royal Shakespeare Company, combines elements of Behn’s novel and Southerne’s tragedy.  Bandele divides the play into two sections (as in the novel): the first part takes place in Coramantien and the second in Surinam.  As in Behn, Imoinda is a Coramantien rather than a Brit (as in Southerne), but Bandele retains other elements from Southerne, such as Oroonoko’s notorious speech in which he defends the British as having purchased him fairly. 

     Fans of Behn and Southerne may find the first act shocking: evoking recently disseminated images of water torture, the grandfather/king nearly drowns Imoinda while forcing her to perform fellatio on him in his bath.  This scene was done so forcefully that, during the intermission, some patrons in front of me expressed to the usher their concerns about the actress’s safety.  Instead of drowning, though, in her violent struggle against him Imoinda injures the aging king in a way that contributes to his death.  Thus unlike in Behn or Southern, Oroonoko in Bandele’s version inherits the throne just before being captured into slavery. 

     Bandele complicates and nuances the African scenes, filling out characters that merit only brief appearances in Behn, as well as adding entirely new ones and new tensions in the court of Coramantien.  Spectacular staging, drumming, and choreography of war scenes further enhance the first act, the equivalent of which in Behn remains comparatively sketchy (although I cannot agree with the author’s comment in his program note that Behn’s Oroonoko “was really nothing more than a Noble Savage.”) 

     While the enhancement of the African scenes are rewarding in themselves, they have a significant payoff in the second part, which takes place in Surinam.  We are all accustomed to a certain theatrical representations of new world slaves, but Bandele gives these figures a new kind of depth through our familiarity with the characters in their previous setting.  Further, certain actors appear here as slaves who we earlier saw as court figures in Coramantien, although it’s not clear that they represent the same people.  This ambiguity works to the production’s advantage. Toi Perkins as Imoinda gives a haunting performance as a princess traumatized by abuse on two continents.  Perhaps most significantly, though, solidarity with the other slaves (rather than the prospect of a child being born into slavery) ultimately motivates Oroonoko’s rebellion, although much negotiation and ambivalence precedes it.  Bandele echoes Southerne’s Shakespearean ending to memorable effect. 

     The death of Oroonoko’s grandfather in the first act brings a new poignancy to the tragic bloodbath at the end, for while in Behn it’s not entirely clear what sort of life Coramantien would offer even if the couple had miraculously made their way back, Bandele raises the stakes by replacing the prince of Behn and Southerne with a Coramantien warrior king.

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Posted by Laura Rosenthal 


One response to “Oroonoko at the Duke on 42nd Street

  1. The playwas the best I’v ever seen!