A selection of adaptations that inspired director and Court Theatre resident artist Ron OJ Parson’s staging of Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play Waiting for Godot are singled-out on a large poster hanging in the Court Theatre’s lobby. Two of these stagings—a 1957 Broadway revival starring Geoff Searle, Mantan Moreland, and Geoffery Holder and a 2006 show by the Classical Theatre of Harlem placing the characters in a flooded, post-Katrina New Orleans—featured, as Parson’s staging does, an all-black cast, a move Parson says sits well within the tradition of draping changes over the play’s bare-bones structure to imbue it with particular meanings for particular communities.
“I am not here to change the play, maybe just deepen some of the issues found in the play by having the cast represented with the bodies and actors I cast,” he says in an interview featured in the show’s program. “I wanted to do something the Black community could get involved in—but not in the most stereotypical way.”
Later in the interview, he makes reference to the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown as indicative of a deliverance that the African-American community in particular has long awaited even as it seeks answers to the questions that trouble all humanity, or so the play argues. The play’s lead characters—Vladimir and Estragon, two hobos who implicitly stand in for all humanity—wait for the duration of the play for the arrival of a man named Godot, whom, from its very first staging, has been understood as a catchall symbol. He is an absent embodiment of the answers to our deepest questions, our queries about existential meaning. The value of interpersonal relationships. The existence and nature of God.
The selection of an all-black cast both broadens and grounds those questions. Audiences, Parson suggests, can imagine a black Vladimir and Estragon waiting for justice, equality, and dignity in the firm here and now even as they look to the heavens and down the road for all the rest.
But although race relations are likely on the minds of this staging’s viewers even before the first crack of the whip of Pozzo—a proud buffoon who drives a man named Lucky in front of him like a mule—Parson’s staging retains the opacity and thematic ambiguity of the play as written. He’s avoided certain unsubtle moves. A black Pozzo, played with bombast and bravura by A.C. Smith, who was recently seen in both The Misanthrope and Tartuffe at Court, invites viewers to examine the nature of pure power and de-racialized oppression more than a white Pozzo with a black Lucky might have. The tendency of men to exploit others and the kinds of pontifications used to justify or obscure that tendency—which Smith delivers in a stout and sonorous voice that betrays his experience as a voiceover artist—are both universal, despite the particular alignments of oppressors and oppressed played out in our history. As is the temptation to succumb to both, as Vladimir and Estragon’s playful flirtations with exercising authority demonstrate.
The risk of succumbing is embodied by Lucky, who, as Vladimir exclaims in a brief attack of insight and indignation, is a human being stripped of his humanity by Pozzo and circumstance. Though Lucky is mute through most of the play, the rigid expressions of actor Anthony Lee Irons and his trembling anger at being ordered around speak volumes. At one of the play’s most memorable moments—after Lucky is ordered to “Think”—Irons is a revelation, convulsing frenetically and bandying across the stage and into the audience while delivering Beckett’s absurd stream of consciousness monologue. His performance is at once frightening and funny; audience members should prepare to join in an ovation as soon as Lucky finally comes to rest.
The play’s other two leads are decent in their roles. Alfred H. Wilson and Allen Gilmore nail the physically comedic and evocative parts of Estragon and Vladimir as a Laurel and Hardy-type pair. Gilmore, who plays Vladimir, has a sadness to his face that lends certain scenes extra poignancy. His despair at the second visit of Godot’s boy near the play’s end ensures that audiences leave as moody and contemplative as Beckett intended. Gilmore and Wilson play their roles with a naturalistic chumminess that makes the open questions they pose fit with their more ribald and banal banter. This may well have been what Beckett intended: an illustration in their characters of our inclination to squeeze thoughts about the great beyond and ourselves into minds already crowded with frivolities. Of our willingness to place our musings on God and man on a shelf between our fart jokes and favorite songs. Parson’s staging, like all good Godot stagings, asks us to examine that shelf more closely. It asks us to ponder our pondering—our willingness to wait for Godot, who or whatever it might be.
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. January 28–February 15. $55, $49.50 seniors, $41.25 students. (773)753-4472. courttheatre.org