The play begins. A house stands, white pillars shining in the sun and magnolia trees swaying in the summer breeze. A man with ragged clothes and no shoes, skin deep and dark like forbidden secrets, leans against the steps outside and looks up into the window of the plantation home. From the seats of the theater, it would appear that the opening to The Darker Face of the Earth resembles Gone with the Wind or some other Southern slave story. But Rita Dove manages to transform a traditional Southern setting into a Greek tragedy, and blends African American traditions with contemporary commentary to create a moving and brilliantly constructed drama.
A typical situation in the 1820s: a heartless slave owner takes advantage of his slave women, producing mulatto children that are also kept as slaves. Dove reverses this situation by creating the character of Amalia, a white, married woman in charge of a plantation, who has an affair with an African slave and chooses to give up her son for fear of his life. Hector, the father of the child, loses his sanity and runs to the woods, while Amalia grows hard, driving her slaves with a bitter hand. Amalia had hoped to love without boundaries. Instead, she follows the strict segregation and dehumanization of slavery, with great repercussions for her and the others involved.
Dove's play introduces us to a variety of characters. The audience meets a slave named Alexander, who says, "Aint right, a woman running a plantation like that, instead of 'Massa Jennings,'" Amalia's father (35). Then there is Augustus, the mysterious and rebellious slave, who speaks of Greek goddesses and addresses Amalia by her first name. He fears nothing: "Fear! Fear eats out the heart. /Itll cause kings and field niggers alike to crawl in their own piss"(58). Phebe is a slave and a woman, but Augustus sees her as a future freedom leader for the slaves. Scylla plays the part of the soothsayer, the eyes that see everything, including the terrible tragedy that befalls the plantation.
The Darker Face of the Earth rewrites the tragedy of Oedipus, a son who kills his father and marries his mother, and combines this tragedy with more contemporary questions regarding freedom, integration, civil rights, and prejudice. In this play, Dove questions the possibility of reconciliation between white and black people. It is no accident that Dove uses a plantation setting for her contemporary play. The same questions that arose in the days of slavery still persist today: how do we deal with the past sins of racial injustice? Can we wipe the slate clean, or do previous wrongs linger that we must confront? Dove has been able to create a fresh look at the continuing tension between whites and blacks; her play embraces the beauty of Black tradition as it exposes the sorrow and anger from where it sprang.