January 15, 2003
funny in Kansas
Arts and Entertainment
Ambition and empire shape Cecil Rhodes's early years in The Colossus of Rhodes.
By Robert Avila
NOBODY EVER ACCUSED Cecil Rhodes of thinking small. In 1877, as a 23-year-old student at Oxford, he dedicated himself in his "Confession of Faith" to becoming an instrument for the English "race's" domination of the globe. He fell short of the mark, but there's no denying he made a hell of a start. Rhodes came to be considered the personification of British imperialism: he cornered the South African diamond market, wrested control of much of its gold, and out of his immense personal fortune and successful political career, built a whole country in his name, Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe).
In taking on the sickly vicar's son turned "colossus" as the subject of her playwriting debut, American Conservatory Theater artistic director Carey Perloff is thinking pretty big herself. But while her semifictional story touches on many of the grand historical themes that were part of his adult life colonialism, the global expansion of corporate power, racism, and the foundations of apartheid, to name a few The Colossus of Rhodes is shrewdly confined to Rhodes's early years around the Kimberley diamond mines, exploring the relationships that shaped Rhodes (Allyn Burrows) in this crucial period.
The most important is Rhodes's nonphysical romance with Randall Pickering (David Adkins), a young aesthete who has fled the repressive, homophobic environment of London for a new beginning in Africa. Rhodes, in denial about his own sexuality, finds himself alternately tempted by Pickering's celebration of beauty and by the worldly concerns urged on him by business partners Charles Rudd (Rufus Collins) and Dr. Jameson (Robert Parsons). Pickering, who wins a job as Rhodes's secretary by coining the slogan "a diamond is forever," is also responsible for Rhodes's ultimately successful attempt to gain admission to Oxford despite his lack of Greek. Oxford don John Ruskin's (Parsons) call for Englishmen to civilize the globe in turn lends a larger scope to Rhodes's African diamond exploits. And spurred by further suggestions from Pickering, Rhodes moves into political maneuverings and territorial annexations.
The play's action, which takes place on Hisham Ali's elegantly spare set, is interspersed with a handful of vaudevillian songs sung by Barney Barnato (Paul Vincent Black), the colorful East End Jewish showman and boxer who became for a time Rhodes's chief competitor in the diamond business. The short musical numbers are unmemorable, but Black gives a buoyant performance as the ever cheerful and resourceful Barnato, whose love affair with an African woman, Fanny Bees (gracefully rendered by Kathleen Antonia), forms a counterpoint to that between Rhodes and Pickering (the pair clash over Pickering's love for the native Africans and Rhodes's contempt for them). At the same time, the story line plays on the outsider status of both couples and the possibilities for them to control their own destinies that have been opened up by an Africa in a chaotic state of flux.
Rhodes's steady self-aggrandizement can seem increasingly like a backdrop to this theme, and therein lies a problem. Burrows delivers a nicely layered Rhodes, combining youthful insouciance and vulnerability with steely reserve that once or twice gives way to mammoth rage. But Colussus doesn't quite succeed in pinpointing what makes Rhodes tick. By opting for a human-sized Rhodes, the play misses the larger-than-life dimension that might explain the ferocious ambition that was evident, dating back to the 1877 plan for a so-called secret society of English-speaking imperialists hatched at Oxford.
The answer might be rooted in a congenitally weak heart that apparently gave Rhodes an exaggerated sense of his own mortality making British imperialism, which promised a kind of immortality, hard to resist. But in Colussus, his defining characteristic is his role as an outsider (an Oxford gate-crasher), and his ambitions are inflamed by others: Pickering, who fed Rhodes suggestions for strengthening his hand, and Jameson, who bullied him into adopting an aggressive, macho drive for conquest.
Instead of delivering a strong sense of what animates Rhodes, the play focuses on the contrast between two couples and their respective legacies. Barney and Fanny relinquish empire-building for a family of their own, while the failed relationship between Pickering and Rhodes ultimately births sons and daughters in the form of Rhodes scholars (with a tacit irony in the fact that many of the scholarships established by Rhodes's will would go to persons Rhodes never intended them for, including the Africans for whom Pickering sacrificed himself). Still, in mining this rich vein of history, Colossus can't help but come up with a few gems that make it a fascinatingly human portrait of the multiple legacies of imperialism.
'The Colossus of Rhodes' runs through Feb. 1. Tues.-Thurs., 7 p.m. (also Thurs/16, Jan. 30, 1 p.m.); Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. (also Sat/18, Jan. 25, 2 p.m.; Feb. 1, show at 2 p.m. only); Sun., 2 p.m., Zeum Theater, Yerba Buena Gardens, Fourth at Howard Sts., S.F. $14-$24. (415) 749-2228, www.act-sfbay.org.