But when dreams are translated into performance art, the results can be mixed. For every person who was transfixed by Tony Soprano's near-death dream sequences at the start of this season, there is another person who was frustrated to tears by that time-consuming digression. In Trinidadian Derek Walcott's massive Dream on Monkey Mountain, now at Karamu, folklore and dreamscapes combine to forge a performance that is at times engrossing and viscerally stimulating. But there are arid patches in this long production (approaching three and a half hours, with intermission) that soften the impact of Walcott's fevered visions.
Employing a rich, rasta-jambalaya of language that includes poetic riffs, Caribbean patois, and backstreet slang, Walcott (who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1992) attempts to portray the restless search for a genuine black identity in a West Indies chafing under British colonial rule. To that end, the playwright throws an old hermit named Makak into a cell, after a drunken row that occurs during one of his rare visits to town. Abused by a sneering Corporal Lestrade and mocked by two other natives in an adjoining cell, Makak longs to return to Africa, his spiritual home.
From that point on, the dream takes flight, as pounding drums and waves of dancers accompany Makak on his glorious quest. Starting from square one as a lowly charcoal peddler with his best friend Moustique, Makak finds that he has the power to heal people when he lays hands on a young man dying from a snakebite. Soon, Makak is a legend in the hinterlands, and his gift -- or is it madness? -- soon inspires Moustique to make a buck from his buddy's newfound talent. Makak and Walcott, however, are on a much more challenging allegorical trail, leading to such destinations as cultural independence and personal salvation.
Frankly, it's a pleasure to see Karamu and director/co-choreographer Terrence Spivey grapple with such weighty material, especially after some of this season's lighter-than-air fare (particularly an eminently forgettable version of The Odd Couple). Spivey and his choreographic partner, G. Carlos Henderson, create some soul-stirring spectacles of motion on the Jelliffe Theatre stage, where the company of 10 dancers -- ranging from the lithe to the pleasingly plump -- portray local citizenry or the pulsing flora of the surrounding jungle.
Among the performers who have speaking roles, Cornell Calhoun III as Makak is suitably mysterious and monomaniacal. But his face is blurred by hanging dreads and his voice by a choked and whispery delivery that makes him hard to understand. This is especially true when the drumbeats intensify and the chorus chimes in with various vocalizations. E.B. Smith has a better time with the simpler character of Moustique, nailing a number of unexpected punch lines. (Describing the pair's unimposing power in the world, he shrugs, "The two of us together is minus one.")
Representing British domination is Rod Freeman, who plays the imperious Lestrade with a gap-toothed devil grin that would freeze Dick Cheney's lip curl. But Freeman tends to lose his character's internal drive during some of Walcott's extended, multilayered speeches, and it feels as though he's just hanging on for dear life. Later on, Lestrade is stripped bare, literally and figuratively, and makes an unexpected transition that Freeman handles with aplomb.
In the smaller roles of Makak's cellmates, Jimmie D. Woodie is crisp and clever as the scheming Tigre, and the dangerously thin Anthony Isaac is ideal as the fidgety Souris. A constant presence throughout is Willie Gibson as the "coffin maker" Basil, laughing knowingly as the hallucination wends its circular path back to the jail cell where it all began. While Gibson's spooky chuckle is eerie, if a bit too overt at times, the actor comes a cropper when he clumsily, absently lists the names of the dead white people -- from Ptolemy to Al Jolson -- who are indicted for crippling the African destiny.
Though some of Walcott's racial imagery is rather tortured -- such as the balletic White Goddess who torments Makak ("She is the white light that paralyzed your mind!") -- this is the kind of ambitious show that's ideal for Karamu. And it's a dream that can be shared by everyone, on many levels.