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Imagery is everything when you’re a poet—unless you’re writing a play, in which case a feel for dialogue and dramatic structure comes in handy.

In The Darker Face of the Earth, much-respected former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove reimagines the Oedipus tragedy with breathtaking ambition, departing freely from Sophocles’ plot when it suits her. There’s beautiful stuff here, some of it almost miraculously so, but Dove doesn’t seem to know quite when to stop or quite how to shape a narrative arc; too many diversions and too many indulgent flights of rhetorical fancy dilute what could be a devastating evening.

Dove’s Jocasta is Amalia Jennings LaFarge, the willful mistress of a slavery-era South Carolina plantation; the Oedipus (renamed Augustus Newcastle) is Amalia’s bastard son by a field hand, sold away in the prologue by Amalia’s no-account husband Louis over her protests and unknowingly bought back 20 years later by the lady herself, who now runs the plantation while Louis sits drinking and stargazing in his study. As in Sophocles, Augustus and Amalia, ignorant of each other’s identities, become lovers; as in Sophocles, she dies badly and he goes mad when they learn the truth.

In adding miscegenation to the incestuous mix, Dove seems to be aiming to fuse the tragic notion of fate as an inexorable everyday force with more modern ideas about racial difference as an inescapable and inevitably poisonous factor in every relationship—even, and perhaps especially, in ties of mixed blood. In her play’s Kennedy Center/Crossroads Theatre Company staging (the world premiere was last year at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival), the idea’s potential goes begging: This Darker Face is generally interesting, occasionally thrilling, but all too often tediously overdone.

Dove and director Ricardo Khan create vivid mind- and stage-pictures. Red, with its suggestions of blood ties and blood spilled, is an almost too obvious leitmotif throughout; characters speak yearningly of passion and roses while a web of scarlet fabric entangles slaves and owners alike, a symbol of the fate that binds them and an explicit metaphor for the blood attendant in childbirth. Ceremony and tradition play weighty, even oppressive parts: Slaves mourn their dead with a liturgical precision, while the supposedly all-powerful plantation owners find themselves bound by the strictures of social rituals and expectations, unable to choose the paths that might save them.

Someone, presumably musical director Olu Dara, has integrated songs and chants into the storytelling thread with a seamlessness that’s barely short of brilliant. Action shifts fluidly and organically from naturalistic dialogue to stylized chorus and back again; a trio of drummers perched above the action provides a constant, insidious, magical accompaniment, even summoning swamp noises for scenes in which insurrectionists meet and madmen rave. (One question, though: Whose idea was it to use “Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child” when Augustus first returns to Amalia’s plantation? Unwanted chuckles abounded opening night.)

The strikingly charismatic Ezra Knight commands the stage as Augustus, who’s presented as unmistakably Other—not just by virtue of his mixed heritage but because he’s been raised by a benevolent British sea captain who has educated him in defiance of social norms that call for slaves to be kept illiterate and ignorant. Augustus knows his Greek literature, his geography—and his modern history, including the story of Toussaint L’Ouverture’s bloody Haitian slave uprisings, with tales of which he begins to foment rebellion on his mother’s plantation. From his first appearance, Knight (a veteran of Arena Stage’s Living Stage Theatre Company) exploits his powerful presence and his capacity for stillness and centeredness to set himself apart from the other actors; as field hands dance to a story-song about a possum hunt, he stands downstage, markedly not of their world, not willing to allow himself to forget or even momentarily deaden—as is their aim—the daily travail of the slave.

Would that all the cast had his confidence and style. Felicity La Fortune, as Amalia, is an ingratiating presence despite a suspiciously opulent Carolina accent, but elsewhere spotty, overheated performances conspire to undermine the cumulative effect. The worst offenders are Trazana Beverley, who keens shrilly as the conjure-woman Scylla, bent more than double under the weight of the fourfold curse that binds her to Amalia, Augustus, and the mad snake-waving swamp-dweller Hector; David Adkins, whose Louis becomes the worst kind of grotesque foppish caricature; and Ramon Moses, who rants rather too vigorously as Hector.

Other problems lurk in the script: With occasional lapses into hackneyed metaphor (“You led me into your parlor like a dog on a leash,” Augustus complains to his lover/mother; a slave remembers a fever that “swept through the cabins like wildfire”), Dove shatters the mood she has worked so hard to create in lines like the achingly bitter monologue with which Augustus, in a mistaken assumption about his parentage, gives the play its title: “One soft spring night/when the pear blossoms/cast their pale faces/on the darker face of the earth/Massa stood up from the porch swing/and said to himself ‘I think/I’ll make me another bright-eyed pickaninny.’” (Is it just me, or does anyone else hear faint, lovely echoes of James Agee’s “On damp strings morning glories/hang their ancient faces” in the first part of that line?)

More serious is the profusion of subplots or almost-subplots: Is Augustus romantically drawn to his fellow slave Phoebe? Do his fellow conspirators believe he has the nerve to lead an insurrection against his lover? And what the hell kind of stellar augury does Louis see through that telescope, anyway? There is, in the outlines of Dove’s script, a sense of fate’s relentless march; to preserve and intensify it, to make it visceral, she needs to streamline the play’s action.

More confident direction might have helped build the illusion of that kind of momentum, but Khan’s control of the proceedings is tentative and uneven. Emotional climaxes escalate out of control; bad acting choices need quashing. It’s enough to make you wish for a George Wolfe, a JoAnne Akalaitis, or even a Peter Sellars to hold things together.

Still, there’s promise here, between the earth’s dark face and the sky the plantation slaves raise their faces to. In the realm between, rich possibilities wait for the right director—and the right editor—to find them.CP