Jacqueline E. Lawton’s Blood-bound and Tongue-tied, currently having its world premiere at the Strand Theater in Baltimore, can seem like two plays hammered onto different sides of the Oedipus myth. Oedipus, recall, was the Theban king who killed his father and married his mother, producing four accursed offspring and bringing divine retribution upon their heads. In the version with which most of us are likely familiar—Sophocles’ tragedy—the crimes are committed before the play begins; the drama is in the aftermath. In contrast, Lawton devotes Act One of her play to the backstory, which unfolds in brief scenes spread over many years; her focus is not the son but the mother, Jocasta. (Lawton names all but one of her characters after their Greek equivalents.)
During this first act, Lawton weaves some interesting details around her central premise, which is that Jocasta—a light-skinned black woman in Depression-era Tennessee—leaves behind her family and moves to Texas in order to pass as a white woman. There she marries Laius, the son of a wealthy—and dangerously bigoted—man, and settles into a life of privilege. But the birth of a son, whom she names Oedipus and who is “black as night,” shatters her peace, and the lies she tells to guard herself from the truth inevitably doom her.
As directed by Lindsay Gentry, these early scenes move quietly, with little indication—save our knowledge of the source material and an occasional, red-lit dream—of the horrors to come. These Lawton reserves for Act Two, which hews more closely to the Greek myth—with increasing costs to dramatic logic. In noting these costs, I will have to give away certain plot points, though I will try not to reveal more than people already familiar with the story of Oedipus could infer.
My main problem with Blood-bound is that its sense of justice seems unbalanced. The Greek Oedipus and Jocasta are punished for the sins of incest and murder (however unintentional)—they are both polluted and pollutants, and they must be cleansed through blood. Because Lawton begins her story so much earlier, and lingers so long with young Jocasta and Laius, the sin that triggers their tragedy is Jocasta’s deceit. As one character tells her, “You lied, and now thousands of people are dead.” But Lawton does not convince me this crime demands such retribution—Jocasta may not deserve a happy ending, but neither does she resemble her tragic namesake.
Equally unconvincing is Laius’s fall from amiable civil rights lawyer to symbol of all that is racist and evil. Act Two begins with a compelling new tension between husband and wife; rather than develop this conflict on its own terms, Lawton leaps forward repeatedly in time to arrive at the moments, at last, when son kills father and seduces mother. But the sequence of events that leads there breaks down in several places:
- Why, in the heart of mid-century Texas, does Oedipus, a black man, believe that killing Laius, a white man, would prevent deaths? It seems more likely that to avenge Laius, his fellow Klansmen would go on a rampage. Oedipus may not care, but I feel we should. In tying together the fates of her protagonists, Lawton neglects the community they leave behind—we never learn the aftermath.
- Why does Oedipus not shoot Laius on the spot? Instead, he binds and interrogates him for no apparent purpose than to recite the riddle posed by the Sphinx to the original Oedipus. (What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs at night?) But how is the answer relevant to Lawton’s play?
- Why does Jocasta, who insists to the end that she loved her husband, stay with Oedipus, whom she knows murdered Laius in cold blood? (In the original story, Jocasta does not learn this until well after she marries Oedipus.) More crucially, why does she become his lover?
In spite of these difficulties, the actors are solid, though they seem more comfortable inhabiting the middle grounds of the first act than the tragic extremes of the second—particularly Kelli Wright as Jocasta and Morgan Mosley as her brother, Creon. As Oedipus, Derek Cooper stalks the stage like a panther—his sleekness is thrilling, though his growl of a voice verges on the comical. Chris Knight’s Laius morphs from an awkward young man and idealist into a paranoid leader of thugs; nevertheless, in all their scenes together he and Wright remain fully invested in their characters’ love for each other, and their relationship is the strongest aspect of the play. Ann Turiano makes a poignant third wheel as an unrequited admirer of Laius, Jenna. (At the risk of nitpicking, I wish Lawton had given this character a more classical name such as Helen or Diana—there is something inherently silly in the juxtaposition of Oedipus, Jocasta, and Jenna.)