Honoring Black History Month, Manhattan Theatre Club offers a new play, "Drowning Crow." Not new exactly, since playwright Regina Taylor has built upon Chekhov's "The Seagull" ("riffing" the story, as she says). The story is essentially the same, but moves from white to black (note that a black crow replaces the white gull), from Russia to the Gullah islands of South Carolina, from the 19th century to the present day.
How well does this updated version work? For our money, it is always unwise to tamper with Chekhov, who gets it just right in the first place. And here again, despite its elaborate, stunning window-dressing, "Drowning Crow" never comes close to telling the story with the same impact. In fact, the story gets lost in the hip-hop music, vivid lighting, and striking video images of director Marion McClinton's production.
Both "The Seagull" and "Drowning Crow" deal with the power of destructive love, of loving the wrong person. A loves B loves C loves D, and so on. It is the driving force of the drama, although many high-flown observations about art and creativity and the longing for recognition abound. And, as in many Chekhov plays, the characters long to escape to the city, abandoning the stultifying country life.
Although Taylor and company muddy the waters considerably with frequent references to African-American icons and all kinds of present-day influences, there are some memorable, and very human, moments. Scenes between mother and son (Alfre Woodard and Anthony Mackie) are strong. In fact, Woodard, an accomplished actress playing an accomplished actress, does much to bring the scattered elements under control. She heads up a large, competent cast.
Nevertheless, "Drowning Crow," a tale of regrets, lost opportunity, and unrequited love, turns out to be less than the sum of its parts.