“Should Black Actors Play Chekhov?” More than 30 years have passed since The New York Times posed this question as the headline to an Arts and Leisure feature. The occasion was a production of The Cherry Orchard at the Public Theater with an all-black cast, featuring Gloria Foster as Lyubov Renevskaya, the lovelorn, debt-ridden aristocrat who returns to her foreclosed estate just as it is about to be auctioned off, and James Earl Jones as Lopakhin, the serf-born, self-made man who buys the place and immediately begins to subdivide it into a development of vacation homes. The two writers addressing the Times‘ charged but silly question—Maya Angelou and Ed Bullins—of course said yes. Any reservations they may have expressed had to do with whether anyone at all should be playing what they regarded as a stuffy old work. As Angelou put it, “in a plethora of dull European classics The Cherry Orchard takes the cake.”
The energetic, mostly black Cherry Orchard that just opened at the Classical Theatre of Harlem suggests, thankfully, that American theater has gotten over the misguided approach to Chekhovian realism that links Angelou’s dismissal of the play to the Times‘ clunker of a headline: It’s a deadly literalism that made American Chekhov lugubrious for decades and that allowed people to insist that actors—who, by definition, are not equivalent to the characters they portray—match up racially (and in other ways) with fictional creations. Under Christopher McElroen’s deft direction, the production also asserts that one can release the vital force of Chekhov without resorting to the hollering high jinks of Pavol Liska’s recent Three Sisters.
Played on a flat, thrust stage, with just a few suggestive set pieces—a rug, a bookcase, a heap of suitcases—this Cherry Orchard moves briskly, riding Chekhov’s musicality. Various groupings arrive and depart as fluidly as the horns or strings in a symphony. But when characters step out of the obbligato for their arias, they often hammer a single emotional note. They miss the sense that moods are layered and complex, that characters deepen and thicken as texture is added.
One significant exception is Earle Hyman (who played Gaev at the Public in 1973): He dodders with a haunting dignity as the old servant Firs. Another standout, Wendell Pierce, properly avoids playing Lopakhin as a rapacious conniver. His dizzy, half-drunken rapture over his purchase celebrates his rise from serfdom, not his victory over Lyubov’s family. When he thrusts up a fist into a black-power salute—drawing one of the production’s few comparisons between the legacies of Chekhov’s pre-revolutionary Russia and the concurrent American Reconstruction—he reminds us that while any actor can play any role, theater, like the cherry orchard itself, is both fantasy and palpable presence. One can’t silence the echo of history hacking at the trees.