Harlem, October 1935. The scene opens on Rose McClendon as Lady Macbeth, rehearsing the “screw your courage to the sticking place” scene from “The Scottish Play.” She asks 20-year-old wunderkind Orson Welles to direct their Negro Theatre Unit production. He turns them down—until he gets the idea to set it in 19th century Haiti and call it “Voodoo Macbeth.”

This fascinating docudrama from the USC School of Cinematic Arts is no classroom exercise but a polished film. It has eight writers and 10 directors credited, yet it’s a seamless whole. The actors have terrific chemistry, with Inger Tudor a standout as Rose. The only real flaw is that Jewell Wilson Bridges bears no resemblance to young Welles, but he conveys the director’s youthful energy and intensity. 

At heart, “Voodoo” is about a group of young actors taking extraordinary risks, and succeeding against all odds—including a congressman who cuts off their funding and denounces the play as “witchy mumbo-jumbo.” Actual footage of the original production is included in the disc (available on Blu-ray from www.lightyear.com).

The film is far more compelling than Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ edgy, offbeat play “Appropriate,” running at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa (www.scr.org, through Feb. 26), in rotating repertory with Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes.” Jacobs-Jenkins’ play, about a family with skeletons in the closet, does take substantial risks itself, though they don’t always pay off.

Racism raises its ugly head in both the play and the film, in the latter when Welles blacks up to play MacBeth in one scene. “Appropriate” goes more for shock value, especially in one particularly outrageous moment which drew laughs the night I attended.

Sure to create controversy, there seems to be little debate about one element of the play— its outstanding scenic design, a crumbling Southern mansion, created by Lawrence Moten III. The play, directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, alternates performances with “Foxes,” with overlapping casts and the same set.

Author: Jordan Young