Performed by the Princeton Black Arts Company
Directed by Reena Glaser, Kemi Adegoroye
Thursday (2/7) and Friday (2/8) at 8:00 PM; Saturday (2/9) at 2:00 PM
Frist Film and Performance Theater
Princeton audiences keen on musical theatre are in for a treat this weekend with the Black Art Company’s production of Aida, the Tony Award-winning musical inspired by Giuseppe Verdi’s opera classic and transformed into a Broadway hit in 2000 by Tim Rice and Elton John. Directed by Reena Glaser ’14 and assistant-directed by Kemi Adegoroye ’13 (who also plays the title role and who completes her thesis performance with this piece), BAC’s production is a well put-together piece of theatre that brings various themes, characters, and musical styles into conversation with each other in an entertaining and thought-provoking way.
The plot follows the story of Aida, a Nubian princess in the ancient world captured by Egyptians and sold into slavery in the Land of the Pharaohs. A proud, intelligent, strong, and dignified woman, Aida from the moment of her capture resists the bondage of slavery, displaying aggression and daring against her captors. In the process, she catches the eye of an Egyptian captain, Radames (Chris Prisco ’14). Radames first strikes us as arrogant and privileged, perhaps somewhat free-spirited, but also somewhat aloof. We learn early on, his Nubian servant Mereb (Terrence Fraser ’16) has been swindling from him for years. But no matter: Radames also happens to be the son of chief-minister Zoser (Gregory Loshkajian ’16), and is betrothed to Princess Amneris (Caroline Hertz ’15), daughter of the Pharaoh (Gregory Kraft ’15). Quite naturally opposites attract; a relationship promptly develops between Aida and Radames, former Princess and future Prince; and a love triangle emerges which creates tension not only with regard to personal emotional struggles but also to social and racial issues.
In the piece, all lead Nubians are cast as black and all lead Egyptians as white, creating a stronger divide between the two nationalities than might otherwise be obvious to the audience. The familiar slave/master, colonialist/native distinctions are thus also brought up, and are in fact treated in the dialogue and further enhanced by costume design and by the musical accompaniment.
But crucially, a subversive quality emerges when the piece suggests the transcendence of all these social issues through the love of Aida and Radames. Thus the play ultimately suggests the fundamental equality of the two lovers and the groups– racial, national, and social– which they are taken to represent.
Another, somewhat more risqué bit of subversion in the piece was noted by Professor Jill Dolan (Annan Professor in English and Professor of Theater in the Lewis Center for the Arts) in a talk-back delivered after the premier of the piece last Thursday. She observed that if anybody was a sex-object in Aida it was the male lead, Radames. This is hardly an exaggeration: audience members of all genders could constantly be heard swooning at Prisco’s body – chiseled as bloody Adonis and cunningly kept on display through the use of a open vest for his costume in most of the piece. At a certain moment, Aida slips Radames’ vest off as a man might slip off a woman’s bra – a move that, as Dolan put it, “kind of winked at the audience through an interesting performance of gender”.
But this winking was not the only moment of humour in Aida. Indeed, the piece features a great many moments of comic relief, both awkward and sharp, many in connection with Princess Amneris. But these moments are balanced by painful moments of personal struggle, serious moments of state ceremony or social exchange, and touching moments of interpersonal narrative development.
A certain amount of dynamism and energy is required to pull off well the balance between these various scenes, and the cast rises admirably to the occasion. The performances of the principle cast – Aida, Amneris, and Radames – were especially powerful and provided the forward momentum of the performance. In one wonderful moment Aida and Radames, after a night of amour and passion and practically high on each other, learn from a soldier that the King of Nubia – Aida’s father Amonasro (Joshua Taliaferro ’15) – has been captured by the Egyptian army. Aida moves from complete bliss to complete terror, carrying an intensity that electrifies the stage and the audience, putting us in just the right state of awe to witness the plot climax.
Aida also showcases some innovative choreography and direction, which further enhances the emotional tenor of the performance. Background stagecraft is good, with music being soulful and balanced, and lighting being appropriately dramatic. (One exception: the French horn got a little invasive at times). It is specifically the directing that shines. Ms. Glaser uses as much stage space as possible, placing actors and props as widely as seems practical, thus creating a sense of expanse and grandiosity fitting the setting of ancient Egypt, with its vast stretches of desert, sun, and nothing else in particular. But unlike the openness of this space, there is constant movement and dance on the stage space – not just horizontally, but vertically. The depth of the stage is often used to place main characters and plot action in the foreground, while keeping dancers in the background. You’d think this would have the potential to be distracting, but I found the choreography is done so that there is a surprisingly effective complement to the main action in the background dancing; with just the right level of vigour and movement to be appropriate. This innovation of having two different modes of narrative – dance and dialogue – transpiring concurrently could have been problematic; nevertheless I think it was a risk that paid off.
That said, the chemistry between cast members was so charming and captivating that actually I, for one, might not have cared about less innovative directing if it were there. The energy really put all the pieces together in this production, and in the end, I think audiences will find this quite an entertaining and remarkable piece of musical theatre.
But if my recommendation isn’t good enough, you might prefer Shirley Tilghman’s. After attending the Thursday evening premier, President Tilghman happened to be leaving Frist just as I was. I asked her what she thought. “I thought the principal actors were just outstanding,” she said. “Yes, absolutely terrific energy. Especially Kemi – she is quite the young talent.” She added, though, that she’s not much of a fan of the music – the fault of Elton John’s score, she clarified; but the students did a marvelous job with what they had. I would quite concur.