How Charlie Newell Turned Tartuffe on its Head

The Court Theatre does well to break from the typical staging of Moliere’s play.

Photo: Michael Brosilow. 

Grace Gealey as Mariane, Elizabeth Ledo as Mariane, and Travis Turner as Valere in the Court Theatre’s Tartuffe

The works of Moliere are invariably pale affairs, reflective of the upper crust, Eurocentric world of the 17th century satirist. That’s a fact that makes Court Theatre’s staging of Moliere’s Tartuffe all the more crucial. Directed by Charles Newell and running through July 21, Tartuffe isn’t just a cracking fine production defined by laugh-out-loud humor and rhyming couplets, it also happens to be the rare version that puts actors of color in the spotlight.

The sole Caucasian actors in the piece are the smarmy, menacing charlatan, Tartuffe (Philip Earl Johnson), his nearly mute sidekick (Erik Hellman), and Dorine (Elizbeth Ledo) a maid in the wealthy African-American household where Tartuffe insinuates himself. Newell also moved the action from the high falutin’ court of Sun King-era France to a well-appointed mansion in contemporary Hyde Park creating a Tartuffe that’s both wildly entertaining and rich with provocative subtext.

The layered and, at times, deeply troubling subtext that accompanies Newell’s casting decisions is most acute in the second act “table” scene when Tartuffe attempts to force himself on Elmire (Patrese D. McLean). The scene clearly alludes to an ugly history when hypersexualized black women were at the whims of white men. “As a black woman, I feel the weight of that history every night on that stage,” says McLean during a break between shows. “It’s easy to want to forget the unfortunate history of black women being over-sexualized in American culture,” Mclean continues, “but the images we are playing with in Tartuffe will hopefully resonate with the audience. Hopefully they will be reminded of the history and they will understand we still have progress to make.”

When McLean showed up for the audition several months ago, she was prepared to read not for the lady of the house but for the maid. “It was mind-blowing,” she recalls of her reaction to being asked to read for Elmire. “In classical productions, there are token roles that black actresses are allowed to play; i.e. the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet or Maria in Twelfth Night,” she adds, “I was moved at the thought that things are not always what they seem, that times do change, and glass ceilings may not always exist.”

As for A.C. Smith (Fences, Jitney), playing the central patriarch Orgon was his venture into Moliere territory since he was an undergraduate at Columbia College almost 30 years ago.

“I did Moliere in college, my mentor was Sheldon Patinkin who cast me in everything,” Smith says, “People used to call me ‘white boy’ because I did so many ‘white’ plays.” In his professional life, however, Smith’s casting has been far more limited. “I’ve done a lot of inner-city type plays, a lot of contemporary stuff, but not a lot of classical pieces. It’s not that we [actors of color] don’t want to do these kinds of shows. But I think a lot of times people figure [it] won’t sell. There are racial undertones to that kind of thinking, the idea that people can’t conceive of black households having the kind of wealth that Moliere portrays.”

Smith says theaters are getting better at color-blind casting, but not necessarily when it comes to the classical cannon. “Frankly, I think this is a breakthrough production.”

As far as Newell is concerned, it’s a breakthrough that is long overdue. “It’s not color-blind casting, it’s color-specific casting, ” Newell clarifies. “At Court, we’ve got this incredible community of artists of color. And I’ve got a passion for Moliere. My thought was, why not bring these two great strengths together? I wanted to create opportunities for actors of color that they normally wouldn’t have. It’s way past time for a production like this.”

Tartuffe runs through July 21 at Court Theatre, 5505 S. Ellis Ave., courttheatre.org. $15-$45

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