This is apparently Rant at Regina Taylor Week—if she’s not careful, it could become an annual feature of Black History Month—but before I join the venting chorus, in all fairness, I’d like to mention some of the good things about Taylor’s idea. The tragedy, of course, is that these good things don’t show up in the mostly miserable results onstage at the Biltmore. First, there’s nothing wrong with the notion of adapting Chekhov to a contemporary African American context. Chekhov’s pointillistic, scrupulously notated plays are near perfect in themselves; but that doesn’t mean a resourceful writer couldn’t create an entirely different contemporary play inspired by them. The trouble here is Taylor’s surprising lack of resource: She’s tried to give Chekhov’s world a face-lift—turning farm horses into Mercedeses and so on—which only makes the adaptation seem lame.
Second, there’s no reason to shrink from the idea of bringing hip-hop into the theater; the Hamlet-sampling rap that closes Taylor’s first half isn’t wrong in itself. But the problem is form: Chekhov’s play is poetic naturalism, a middle way that he carefully differentiates from both Arkadina’s stagy repertoire and her son Konstantin’s symbolist chamber drama. Taylor’s debate is between two media so disparate that there are no grounds for challenge—or means of fusion. (You merely wonder why Taylor’s Mrs. Ark Trip doesn’t introduce her rapper son to Russell Simmons.) The failure’s underscored by the third good motive behind Taylor’s work: Drowning Crow is a chance to sample the dazzling panoply of African American acting today. Or would be, if only Taylor and director Marion McClinton had shaped something for these wonderful artists to play.