Dallas — Approximately 90 days after Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary began running in a serial publication, La Revue de Paris, it was banned and its author taken to trial on the accusation of obscenity. In France. Flaubert was eventually acquitted, however his protagonist, Emma Bovary, remained notorious and a threat to the 19th century European idea of how a woman should behave. Her crime? Living as a fully realized sexual being, pushing back on the idea of subservience, and resisting loyalty to conventions.
Groundbreaking playwright Adrienne Kennedy loves the novel and developed an adaptation of the story. It was originally written 12 years ago. The Undermain Theatre production, which opened Saturday and runs through March 15, is its regional premiere.
We thought it would be interesting to get the perspectives of director Bruce DuBose and one of the actors, Rhonda Boutté, who plays Madame Lefrancoise, the innkeeper of Yonville.
Kennedy’s stories are more often those of the African American female who struggles against the demanded passivity or subservience based on race and gender. Upon learning that, some might wonder whether any cultural influences or nuances appear in this work, given that it is an adaptation. I asked that question of Rhonda. Her response was “no,” because Ms. Kennedy was true to Flaubert’s work, and to the time period of the story.
The race and gender of a playwright do not preclude them from tackling stories through a variety of lenses. Restated, a black playwright is not limited to writing through the black experience. Adrienne Kennedy respects the classics, and the author’s language.
Stephanie Cleghorn Jasso plays the title character; the cast also includes Jim Jorgensen, Jamal Sterling, Brandon Murphy, Brandon Whitlock, Charlotte Akin, Omar Padilla, Dakota Ratliff, Amber Rossi, Benjamin Bratcher, and Danny Lovelle.
TheaterJones: Bruce, do you talk with Ms. Kennedy?
Bruce DuBose: I am in weekly almost daily email communication with Ms. Kennedy. Katherine [Owens, the late Undermain cofounder who was originally going to direct this production] was too. They started talking just over a year ago. Ms. Kennedy began sending me some of her research and thoughts about Bovary. That has been very helpful. She is 88 years old, lives with her son and is no longer traveling, but her grandson, a young writer, is going to come for the opening. We are really pleased to host him.
Can you talk about her imprint on this adaptation and its place in her legacy?
Rhonda Boutté: I’m a huge admirer of Adrienne Kennedy’s work. She is very, very special to me. I love the poetic nature and the surrealism of her work. As per this piece, I know that she loves classic pieces and in particular, Madame Bovary. She is a well-versed reader. From my perspective as an actor, I love that the story is told through the daughter’s eyes. I find this quite fascinating. She brings a different perspective to the story, which is quite intriguing. It’s very cinematic and flows beautifully. The imagery is quite lovely.
BD: I’ve written about this a little bit in my director notes in the program. Regarding her legacy, she is highly influential, especially for people working in the avant-garde, experimental or alternative theatre movement. Katherine said of her in an interview last spring that Adrienne Kennedy was one of the greatest influences on her artistic approach to theatre. A lot of other young writers also cite her as an influence. Her work, just by nature of her approach and perceptions, has been very experimental. That is the way she creatively thinks and puts her vision out there which has changed a lot of people’s idea of what theatre can be.
These days her plays are more studied in grad schools than widely produced. A few years ago, Katherine and I started looking through all of her work. We came across the Madame Bovary play and saw that it had not been produced. We started there. [Kennedy] let us do the staged reading of He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box last spring. I’m hoping this is the beginning of Undermain being able to visit more of her work and bring it to the public.
She wrote Funnyhouse of a Negro in the mid-‘60s and it does not seem dated. It remains vital and due to the way it is constructed, seems fresh and striking. I think that’s a real testament to her.
In terms of her taking on Bovary, I have asked and she has sent me some statements about what drew her to Bovary and those will be in the program.
She told me when she was a young wife and mother, her husband was in grad school at Columbia. She had achieved an education, but at that time, young black women were only really encouraged to get a teaching degree. Beyond that possibility of teaching elementary school or something, there really wasn’t much more available to her.
She was at home with her children. While reading great literature she was drawn to the character of Emma and how she was seeking this kind of agency to achieve something in her life beyond what was available to her. From this character, she drew inspiration.
Flaubert was a highly experimental writer for his time. A lot of the innovations he introduced in the novel are now standard novel approaches such as shifting narratives, flashbacks, and psychological examinations of a character’s motives. Those were all new when Flaubert brought them out with Madame Bovary. So she seems to me, given her own work in the avant-garde, sort of like Flaubert. It makes sense that she would be drawn to him and to Emma.
Ms. Kennedy has done some very subtle things with the story and if you come knowing the novel, and the narrative voice, you will see she has used certain approaches. There is all of this omniscient narrative in Bovary, such that you’re not really sure who the narrator is. She has taken a lot of these passages and given to Emma’s daughter, Berthe, who really doesn’t speak in the novel. Berthe is mostly ignored by Emma. But in Ms. Kennedy’s adaptation, it is Berthe who guides the audience and tells us all the details of the story. It’s a really subtle and I think innovative approach, rearranging the novel for the adaptation.
Regarding the narrator, is she narrating the story as Flaubert is telling it, or is she telling the story through her lens?
BD: Kennedy uses a lot of Flaubert’s story. She takes a lot of his language and puts it in the characters’ mouths. She has a lot of respect for Flaubert.
RB: She definitely respects Flaubert’s language.
Bruce, what did you consider to be most important as you assembled a group with whom you could entrust Kennedy’s work?
BD: Katherine was involved in casting because she was going to direct it. I worked with her with research. When she became too ill to come to the theatre, I would take videos, show them to her and we would talk about it. We really kind of cast it together. The material is a little difficult. In the process of exploring the scenes the actors were reading, the main point was who had the best grasp on what the character was about and what they were after, their objectives.
It’s great to work with people I’ve worked with before. I’m always asking Rhonda if she will work with us. We have worked together for probably 35 years. She was one of our earliest members of our ensemble. [She plays] Madame Le Francoise, mistress of the inn. She’s also dancing in the ball sequence. She’s very versatile, and is a real pro. If she tells you she’s going to do it, she does.
This is a cast of 12. I also look for a certain degree of professionalism because these scenes flow so quickly and a cast this size, I knew I wouldn’t have time for a lot of explanation one-on-one.
Rhonda, what about your perspective as an actor?
RB: For my perspective as an actor, the action is nonstop. I am a supporting character in the play but I am consistently doing something. Bruce and Danielle [Georgiou, assistant director] have done such a remarkable job of blending everything together.
What else would you like audiences to know?
BD: This is a fascinating show to work on. It’s been wonderful to be in conversation with Adrienne Kennedy and I’m proud Undermain can bring this show to the public.
RB: It is a fascinating piece of history. Ms. Kennedy adds a flair that is quite understandable for today’s time. We have progressed in some ways and in a lot of ways we have not. It’s a beautiful, moving story.