Following the lead of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Siting Yang has updated Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to the present but left the story mainly set in Africa. In Sky of Darkness as the narrator Ma Luo (Yang’s new Marlow) is Chinese, the tale is now an exposé of Chinese interference in African affairs both financial and military.
However, Yang complicates the story by having it periodically interrupted by The Ghost of Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe who famously gave a lecture criticizing Conrad’s novella in 1975 from an African point of view as racist and stereotyped. But this Achebe doesn’t object to the story as a xenophobic work of post-colonialism but criticizes Conrad for what he says he did not see. He doesn’t take into consideration that Conrad’s story is told by a series of narrators and that Captain Marlow is horrified by the repression he does see by the European rulers (in his time the brutal Belgian occupation).
Conrad’s Kurtz, a manager for an ivory trading company who has turned into a local dictator worse than the Belgian overlords, becomes Ku Erci, a diplomat in the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who we never meet, and his end is due to terrorism rather than illness. Like Conrad’s Captain Marlow traveling down the Congo River, Ma Luo (an airline pilot) is sent to Africa, first to Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, to get a connecting flight to Bamako, the capital of Mali, to take Ku Erci home to Beijing. While there is a great deal of satire of avaricious Chinese officials in Africa, the countries visited never seem real either visually or metaphorically. The famous quotes from Conrad are much more effective than the contemporary language of the characters.
Director Rakesh Palisetty makes a great many mistakes which weaken the play tremendously. Only three actors are live on stage: Ma Luo, The Ghost of Chinua Achebe and a Pakistani Pilot, a combination of Conrad’s manager and his helmsman, who appears as briefly as in Heart of Darkness. The other characters appear in short video clips (Ma Luo’s fiancée, the HR Manager who hires him in Beijing, four party members on the flight to Abuja, etc.) Unfortunately, the video created by a team of four (Beatrice Mai, film production designer; Daniel Cho, cinematographer; Egg, film producer; and Andrew Freeburg, projection designer) has often photographed these excerpts so that the person talking is out of the range of the camera.
Worse still so many accents are used by the cast that it is difficult to understand a good deal of what is said. Just as problematic is that all of the action (except for the interruptions by the Ghost of Chinua Achebe) takes place behind a gauze curtain and with Ma Luo always speaking over a microphone, the play is very remote. All of these theatrical devices tend to sabotage what might have been an acceptable update of Conrad’s novel. The minimal setting by Elena Vannoni and the lack of slides or video to establish places undermine the Chinese and African milieux. Except for a moment when the stage is bathed in yellow/orange, and a moment in blue, the lighting by Danielle Elegy is so pale behind the gauze curtain as to washout the live actors. However, this may be necessary in order to project the many video clips.
The unemotional acting by all of the onstage actors is also off-putting. As Ma Luo who loses his fiancée by his choice to go to Mali for three years, HanJie Chow is very restrained and gives a very internalized performance. Malcolm Opoku is much too knowing and snide as The Ghost of Chinua Achebe without being allowed to tell us his credentials (He was, after all, a world famous African novelist, but the play does not reveal this to us nor about his famous lecture on Conrad’s novella in 1975.) In his brief appearance as the Pakistani Pilot, Sanskar Agarwal is comically knowing and confidential. While some of the actors in the video clips are rather bland, Bingcong Zhu as Ma Luo’s fiancée is suitably bitter and sarcastic.
As directed by Rakesh Palisetty, Siting Yang’s Sky of Darkness comes across as a staging of a radio play but without the sound effects needed to make it real. While the script might be effective in a differently conceived production, this one does little to bring it to life. The warning in the program that the content made use of racial slurs, sexism and misogyny, historical violence, death and Islamophobia makes little impression as the play as produced this way has no impact.
Sky of Darkness (June 2 – 12, 2022)
Theaterlab, 357 W. 36th Street, Third Floor, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit web.ovationtix.com/pr/1108692
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission