By Joanne Klein
From Theatre Journal, May 1999, Vol. 51, No. 2.
Waiting for Godot. By Samuel Beckett. The Studio Theatre, Washington, DC. 17 October 1998.
The Studio Theatre production of Waiting for Godot, directed by Joy Zinoman, foregrounded race as an inflection of the social and theistic relations of Beckett's characters, who are left on their own to improvise in a non-signifying vastness that is neither vast nor non-signifying enough. Charged by the hip showmanship of African American performers Thomas W. Jones II (Vladimir) and Donald Griffin (Estragon), Beckett's absurdist tour de force was refracted through an overlay of identity politics and black vaudeville traditions, especially as these were situated by the marked whiteness of Pozzo (Michael Tolaydo) and Lucky (Hugh Nees). Hardly the first production of Waiting for Godot to feature a racially mixed cast, it nonetheless attracted threats of litigation by US literary agents representing Beckett's estate, following a high-profile, favorable review by Peter Marks in The New York Times (24 September 1998). Despite the issuance of a cease-and-desist letter ordered by Georges Borchardt, Inc., as well as series of phone calls, letters, and faxes that Zinoman described in The Washington Post (10 November 1998) as "bullying" and "intimidating," The Studio Theatre managed to keep the production open and to extend its popular run by almost a month beyond its original closing date.
Zinoman has argued that her production "is the text," while Borchardt's representatives have accused her of 'injecting race into the play.' My own position is troubled by a profound conviction that racism is more deserving of theatrical attention than existentialism and conflicted by a conditioned desire to constitute Beckett's text as consistent with Zinoman's choices. In any case, the Studio Godot vitiates the comment I overheard years ago, as I followed two African American women out of a production of Ohio Impromptu: "It's just more of that white people stuff ain't nobody supposed to understand." As has been documented by inmate reactions to the landmark San Quentin performance of Godot, Beckett's world sustains readings by many cultures or groups; however, I hope not to endorse subjugation of social injustice to the dominion of Artby arguing the reciprocal constitutions of race and Godot that were achieved by Zinoman's production.
Russell Metheny's set design situated Beckett's vagrants in an environment that announced urban cataclysm conflated with all the iconographic resonance entailed by its functions in the script. In the sparsely articulated parking lot of a long abandoned drive-in movie site, Beckett's blasted tree shared the stage with a heap of shredded rubber (rubble?), evoking at once his familiar material and ideological paradigms, as well as an apocalyptic possibility that was wryly congruent with the set. Framed against the backdrop of a slightly askew, artfully corroded drive-in movie screen, the ebbing, cyclical narrative of the play was referred instructively to the toppled venue of outmoded stories that proffered up the (markedly absent) comforts of stable meanings and closure. The site spawned the contagion of paradoxes (absence/presence, witnessed/deserted, literal/figurative, and so on) that animates Beckett's world, but it equally enunciated a locus of marginalization and abandonment that was subsequently, with the appearance of the performers, inflected by race.
Waiting for Godot consists almost wholly of eloquence deployed against the torments of waiting. In this respect, it is ready-made for inhabiting (and defamiliarizing) by the familiar trope of inner-city vagrants, whose nonstop repartee functions precisely as a filling and exhaustion of time. The dialogue of Didi and Gogo, spoken by Jones and Griffin, acquires literal and figurative allusions that accrete on other dimensions of Beckett's inferences, amplifying, rather than vitiating, his meanings. When, for example, Estragon inquired of Vladimir, "We've lost our rights?" and Vladimir replied, "We got rid of them," or Estragon ruminated over the idea that they are "tied down . . . to your man," or Vladimir observed, "nobody ever recognizes us," these ideas became resonant in both racial and existentialist frameworks. Their increasing agitation (and brief departure) during Lucky's laboriously performed recitation of Thinking impugned the speech as a project of whiteness in its assignments of value and meaning, fractured though these are. Pozzo's accusation of their trespass ("Here? On my land?") likewise acquired insidiousness, both as a measure of white privilege and as an echo of vaudeville's province, especially when developed by his manifold designation of the place as "the Board" in act 2.
The performativity of race, along with all the performativities of human existence that resound in Beckett's play, was foregrounded by hints of whiteface makeup on the mouths of Didi and Gogo. Beyond its insistent qualification of the African American performances as the figurations of authorial whiteness, the paint served to constitute their "blackness" as a mimesis of "whiteness" and to politicize their endorsements and facilitations of Pozzo, whose bombastic performance of himself (deftly portrayed by Tolaydo) similarly focuses the effort required to enact these social roles. Raced performativities also inflected each character's diverse strategies for managing the challenges of entertaining himself as well as any apostrophic witnesses or deity. Ironically, the production's script-inspired underscoring of performance, through vestigial whiteface and candid acknowledgment of the audience, was precisely the ground on which it ran afoul of Beckett's agents.
Zinoman's casting deployed markers of race to illuminate the resourceless (/resourceful), immobilized (/unfixed) tramps against Beckett's other model of relationship, the master/slave pairing. Her publicized valorization of "valiant, vagrant friendship" was staked on racial articulations that encompassed and destabilized Beckett's meanings by referring them to topical social and historical exigencies. The Studio Theatre production constituted Waiting for Godot in postmodern circumstances, where increased attention to the politics of ideology and to the politics of authorization are leveling the playing space.