Black Medea: Adaptations for Modern Plays

by Kevin J. Wetmore


This book is in the Cambria Contemporary Global Performing Arts Series (general editor: John Clum, Duke University).

Euripides’ Medea is one of the most popular Greek tragedies in the contemporary theatre. In the Greek original, Medea is the outsider: a foreign woman, non-Greek, a barbarian who marries a Greek, Jason, and raises their children. He leaves her after ten years when Creon, king of Corinth, offers to make Jason his heir if he will marry his daughter. Medea’s revenge is to kill his new bride and father-in-law, as well as her own children, leaving him as alone and forsaken as he left her. Numerous modern adaptations see the play as painting a picture of the struggle of the powerless under the powerful, of women against men, of foreigners versus natives. The play has been adapted into colonial and historical contexts to lend its powerful resonances to issues of current import.

Black Medea is an anthology of six adaptations of the Euripidean tragedy by contemporary American playwrights that present Medea as a woman of color, combined with interviews, analytical essays and introductions which frame the original and adaptations. Jim Magnuson’s African Medea, for example, sets the play in Angola in the early nineteenth century with Medea as an African princess and Jason as a Portuguese soldier. Ernest Ferlita’s Black Medea, set in New Orleans in 1810, posits Medea as a voodoo priestess and Jason as a French colonial aristocrat. Silas Jones’s American Medea is set at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate, with Medea as a slave a Jason as an American colonist. Steve Carter’s Pecong sets the play in the Caribbean, at Carnival time, with a black Jason chasing a black Medea, only to spurn her and pay the price. Marianne McDonald’s Medea, Queen of Colchester presents the character as a black drag queen, a young man who is as much an outsider in his society as Medea was in Athens. Edris Cooper’s The Tragedy of Medea Jackson sets the play in contemporary San Francisco. All adaptations must in some way deal with issues of race and gender. As the title suggests, Black Medea gathers together several examples of plays that posit Medea as a woman of color. Individually, all of the plays are interesting and have merit. Together in one anthology, they frame a much larger discourse of theatrical adaptation, ethnic and gender issues, and African and American history.

Placing six adaptations side by side and interviewing the playwrights in order to gain their insights into their work allows the reader to see how an ancient Greek tragedy has been used by contemporary American artists to frame and understand African American history. Of the six plays present in the volume, three have never before been published and one of the others has been out of print for almost thirty years. Thus the volume makes available to students, scholars and artists a significant body of dramatic work not currently available. The purpose of this anthology is threefold:

First, to give wider exposure to interesting and valuable plays that have either been unexposed or underexposed. The plays themselves are challenging and unique. While all are adaptations of the same play, each handles its source material in a different manner, resulting in startlingly different plays. When read comparatively, the plays provide yet more resonances about the Greek original.

Second, to give the academic and professional theatre worlds more quality scripts for performance. These plays have all had fairly strong successes nationally and internationally. All of the plays under consideration are eminently stageworthy and this anthology will prove a valuable resource when theatre departments, resident and repertoire companies, or community theatres consider their seasons.

Third, given the interest in promoting an understanding of both classical culture as well as today’s multicultural society, this anthology offers the educator the opportunity to engage both ancient Greek tragedy and the representation of historic and contemporary America and Africa. Colonialism, feminism, imperialism, culturalism and the issues that surround them are ensconced within these plays. In short, they make for good pedagogical tools individually. Linked together collectively in one volume they present a wide tapestry that educators can use in a variety of different disciplines and courses.

Black Medea is an important book for scholars, students, artists and libraries in African American studies, classics, theatre and performance studies, women and gender Studies, adaptation theory and literature. Theatre companies, universities, community theatres, and other producing organizations will also be interested in the volume.


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