Dan Gunn and the Practice of Close Reading

As you may know, Dan Gunn retired from UMF this past spring after 42 years. 
UMF English will be holding a symposium in honor of Dan on Friday, October 14 at the Emery Community Arts center at UMF. We’re very excited to hear from Dan’s colleagues, friends, and former students about their work in close reading, as well as about Dan’s legacy at UMF and in the profession. Below is the schedule for the day, which also includes a reception for all retirees at 5:00 and an after-party of sorts at the Homestead. 
Whether or not you can make it to Emery or the Homestead, we hope you’ll contribute a short video here (please pass this link on!) or consider sending Dan a card. I will collect these and deliver them on the 14th. Please send them to Kristen Case, Humanities, University of Maine at Farmington, 270 Main Street, Farmington ME 04938.

Paying Attention: A Celebration of Dan Gunn and the Practice of Close Reading

Friday, October 14, 2022

Emery Community Arts Center

University of Maine Farmington

8:45 Welcome

9:00-10:15 Session 1

*Adèle St. Pierre (The Moses Brown School), “The beauty of words and the power of grammar in J.M.G. LeClézio’s ‘Mondo’”

*Christine Darrohn (University of Maine Farmington), “Lingering: A Close Reading of Katherine Mansfield”

*Astra Pierson (Goddard College) “Poe and the Domestication of the Sublime”
*Erangee Kumarage, “Burning the Master’s House: Feminist and Colonial Agency in Jane Eyre

10:15-11:30 Session 2

*Noelle Dubay (University of Maine Farmington), “Killing the Man Who Can’t be Killed: Reading the Sentence of Gullah Jack”

*Kristen Case (University of Maine Farmington), “English 181: A History”

*Stephen Grandchamp (University of Maine Farmington) “Close Reading Video Games: Digital Explorations Inspired by Dan Gunn”

*Caro Pirri (University of Pittsburgh), “Shakespeare and Marginalia”(via Zoom)

11:30-11:45 Coffee break

11:45-1:00 Keynote Address by James Phelan (Ohio State University),“Close Reading and Narrative Medicine: Edwidge Danticat’s ‘Sunrise/Sunset.’”

1:00-2:15 Lunch 

2:30-3:45Session 3
*Ian Davis (Princeton University), “Sociability in The Ambassadors.
*Shanee Stepakoff (University of Rhode Island), “Hiding in Plain Sight: Judaeophobia in Swift’s Portrayal of the Yahoos in Gulliver’s Travels
*Misty Krueger (University of Maine Farmington), “Adapting Austen in the 2020s: Close Reading or not Close Enough?”

3:45-5:00  Session 4
*Jeffrey Thomson (University of Maine Farmington), “Stop Making Sense”
*Doug Rawlings (University of Maine Farmington), “Mon Dieu! On Watching Dan Gunn Hard at Work.” 
*Jonathan Cohen (University of Maine Farmington), “Continuing the Conversation”
*Steven Pane (University of Maine Farmington), Frédéric Chopin, Barcarolle in F sharp minor
*Jayne Decker(University of Maine Farmington), “The Stuff of Dreams and Magic: Directing Shakespeare with Dan Gunn”

5:00-6:00 Reception for all 2022 Retirees

6:15 Toast Dan at the Homestead! 

Celebrating James Joyce

Several English (and Humanities) faculty members at UMF participated in a UMF/Farmington Community celebration of Bloomsday, the day (June 16) on which James Joyce’s novel Ulysses takes place, as we follow main character Leopold Bloom on his stream of consciousness journey through a day in his life in Dublin.

Several of us from UMF and the Farmington community contributed to a couple of panel sessions that talked about not only Joyce but the modernist movement more generally.

Part I Very brief opening remarks, welcome
Josh Billings: Magic Eyes: Figuring Italy in Pound and Muratov
Kristen Case: Whimsies and Crochets: Pragmatism, Poetry, and Literary Criticism’s Founding Gesture
John R. [A rejection of pre-modernist Western philosophy based on Rilke’s modification of classical poetic form in The Sonnets to Orpheus. ]
Christine Darrohn: Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room
Part II

Jesse Lundquist:  Joyce, et, and, eternity
Daniel Gunn: Ithaca’ and the Anatomy Style
Michael Johnson: Josephine Baker and modernism

After the panels, there was a reading later at local bookstore Twice Sold Tales, where various people read aloud their favorite parts of the novel (which was quite fun).

As part of Jonathan Cohen’s reading, he told a story about this print that he had inherited from his grandmother (which depicts a scene from early in Ulysses), and then read directly—not from the book—from the quoted passage in the drawing.

An Interview with Nik Shultz on “To Build a Queer”

This interview explores graduating UMF senior Nik Shultz’s Wilson Scholar project on queerness and monstrosity. The president of UMF’s chapter of Sigma Tau Delta, Anastasia Mertz, interviews Shultz, who is also a member of Sigma Tau Delta, The International English Honor Society.

Anastasia Mertz (A): Tell me about your project.

Nik Shultz (N): My project was to do an independent study and the first part of that was reading a lot about monster theory, like how the psychology and sociology of human’s creating monster stories and the social implications that a monstrous character has. I looked at a lot of monster media like Scooby-Doo movies because that was the monster media I had as a child. I also looked at the early 1930s/40s movie adaptations of monster stories like Dracula, etc. I choose to look at monsters through a queer lens because I am queer.

Last semester I took a class called Literature and Gender and we read Dracula and other stories. We looked at how queerness is written into stories and how it shows up in stories. And I remembered that when I took a class called Studies in the Graphic Novel, we read this graphic novel called My Favorite Thing Is Monsters. It is a great graphic novel about this young girl who sees herself as a werewolf and draws herself as a werewolf. She has a crush on this other girl who really likes vampires and she draws her as a vampire. It reminded me that when I was a kid that I had a childhood best friend who eventually became my first girlfriend. When we would pretend I would play as a werewolf and she would often be a vampire. I thought that this was a really oddly specific way to relate to this. For this class we had to write blog posts and I wrote a blog post on the question of if it was inherently trans to relate to werewolves and lesbian to relate to vampires. Neither of us really knew we were queer at the time but it is clear that this is an experience that other queer people have, feeling connected to monster characters in monster media.

There is something that is very trans about werewolves, and something about vampires that is very lesbian, but I don’t think it fits to 1 to 1. Werewolves aren’t just trans, and vampires also have been used as trans allegories. I had been doing all this research about the cultural and psychological ways monsters are influenced [by culture] and their representation of queerness. Generally what monsters warn against is the boundaries of what is socially acceptable in the cultures they are created in. That kind of presents the message that queerness is bad. I wrestled with the question of how to create monster media that isn’t queerphobic because a lot of queer people are really into reclaiming that monstrostity.

I’ve gotten off topic from your question. I wanted to look at this question of how we use this knowledge in this research on how we make better monster stories moving forward that aren’t about making queer people evil. So I made this chapbook that has an introduction to a novella that has a collection of monster writing that I have done. I wanted to do a chapbook because I had done a bookbinding class once.

A: Could you tell me more about the novella you’re working on?

N: I wanted to write a lesbian werewolf story. That was how I would put werewolves into the chapbook, because I was doing something with Frankenstein and other works. In my childhood I was really into werewolves. I just think they’re neat. Because it was so connected to my childhood best-friend-into-first-girlfriend arc I wanted to write a story about that. I wanted it to defy the stereotypes. I wasn’t sure how female werewolves were portrayed because generally werewolf characters tend to be very masculine. When they do have a female shapeshifter it isn’t about the violence but about the sexual urges. There are so many plot lines of female werewolves where becoming a werewolf helps her to come into her sexuality. I thought that was really weird. I think that it could be interesting to look at that in a more queer way.

I made my werewolf into a popular girl who was very good at performing femininity. The narration point of view is from this love interest/childhood best friend who never really succeeded at performing femininity in a socially acceptable way. I was really interested in twisting those stereotypes. You think it is the character who doesn’t fit in who is the monster, but really it is this aspect of the build up of resentment and pain from trying to force yourself into a societally accepted role that creates this monstrousness.

A: I was wondering if you looked at race too or if your project was more focused on sexuality and gender?

N: I tried to stay more focused on sexuality and gender. Obviously, that is still very intertwined with race. It comes up a lot in reading monster theory because obviously queerness isn’t the only thing that isn’t put into the monstrous category by the rest of society. Like when you look at Dracula, he is obviously a queer man. But he’s also a foreigner invading and that represents that fear for the time period as well as the fear of homosexuality. But I tried not to focus too much on that. In my writing I tried to avoid making my characters coded something other than white because I am a white writer. I don’t think it’s my place to reclaim that monstrosity for other people. I don’t want to imply anything, because it’s coming from a white mouth, I don’t want to say: this race is monstrous. It does come up a lot in the research of the study. A lot of the classic monster movies and the depictions they spawned, and the classic texts, are super racist.

A: Could you describe how you put the chap book together and what it looks like? How did you format it and organize it?

N: So I wanted the construction to be a little bit janky. I wanted it to have a bit of monstrousness and weirdness and queerness to it. So I did a spine up here [points at the top of the chapbook] instead of along here [points to where spines are typically put]. I was originally going to make the cover fit the paper, so it has some edge that makes it look like it’s going to have the spine here but it actually opens up like this [like a laptop]. It’s like it’s sewn together from a broken up book. All of the pages are pasted in there and there are parts that unfold in an expansive nature with the stories.

With the art I made AI generated art. I thought it would be interesting to put this on the cover. So I went to an AI generator that makes art from a text prompt. I started with “Queer Monster,” and that’s what ended up on the cover. It came out really cool, so I tried “Trans Monster” and it made something that felt really transphobic. I thought that was really messed up but I could see that it was drawing off of the internet and those associations. There is a lot of transphobic stuff on the internet. So, I asked a bunch of transfriends to give me photographs instead that I could combine in an AI generator to make some transmonsters so that I could start at the base of trans people instead of the internet’s crappy drawings of what they think a monster is. It’s showing that the actual nature of transness and the variety and spectrum of trans presentation and gender being close to normal and more monstrous is really wide and expansive and varied than what society expects it to be.

Then I did this poem in which I printed some pages from Frankenstein and cut it up and pasted it together. I sewed parts of the page and I took a photograph and stuck it in here. I provided a typed up version for ease of reading. Part of it is that you can read it in multiple ways. I think the physical creation of a text needs to be a little janky and monstrous to match what it’s doing. 

A: How much of this project was done alone and how much of it was collaborative?

N: Misty [Misty Krueger, Nik’s faculty sponsor] was very helpful and offered me a lot of help and support, but also gave me space to run wild and free and do what I want. I’m a terrible procrastinator and do things at the last minute, so I avoided Misty’s help so that Misty wouldn’t see how little I had done so far. A lot of it was done on my own but I couldn’t have done it without her support.

One of the poems in here I wrote for my Advanced Poetry class so I had the help of people workshopping it and I had friends looking at my other pieces to tell me what they thought. I had to ask Misty for help for more of the bureaucratic work like, what’s the paperwork I need people to sign so I can use their photographs? I asked, “Hey guys, would any of y’all be willing to send me pictures to be turned into monsters?” Not everyone was comfortable with it and not everyone volunteered photos. A lot of people were like, “Heck yeah, I love queer monsters.”

Definitely a lot of people’s input went into it [the project]. I would say that it was collaborative in the way most work is collaborative in that nothing is truly independent. Everybody has to draw support from somewhere. But I largely did hole myself up in my room and worked on this by myself like Victor Frankenstein hiding in his dorm for two weeks.

A: What were the questions you had going into this project? And what were the answers and conclusions you came to?

N: I came into it with a lot of questions that were fundamentally flawed. I felt like I knew a bunch of stuff already, but I learned a lot that I didn’t even expect to learn, like that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was a werewolf story. I was really interested in this question of which monster means what. But I learned that most monsters can’t fit into a single category because that’s the point of monsters, that they defy categories.

I hadn’t really fully formulated the question I ended up tackling with this chapbook. I knew I wanted to make a book about monster stuff but I didn’t really know going into it how much I was going to be working with this question of how do you make a monster story that is sensitive, that’s not hurting anyone, and if that’s possible. Is there a way that is completely against cultural biases?

A: How does your research fit into the context of contemporary monster theory, movies, books? Is there a movement of queer monsters? Have there been significant changes from the 1940s to today? Has it gotten better, worse, or is it just different?

N: Monster theory itself is a relatively new or not that widely known academic field. It really only became into official being in the 90s. There’s stuff out there, but not as much as you want there to be. When looking for baseline books, there’s just 2 books that are compilations of all of the monster theory. There is a really big difference now between the 1930s and 1940s, or in the Victorian era when Dracula was being written.

A lot of these monsters aren’t seen as so scary anymore. They sell things to children, they teach children how to count on Sesame Street, they sell chocolate cereal. There is all of this children’s media, like some of the early 2000s Scooby Doo series and the Hotel Transylvania series, that’s like look! They are the good guys now. But those series always take the queerness away from those characters and try to make them like “we are just like you. We have wives and daughters.” They make Dracula a dad in any cartoon or movie in which he isn’t the villain. Which was really surprising to me. It was so weird that I was seeing that happen so much.

But now there is this new hunger for more queer monsters, and there’s a lot of people that are trying to make media about queer monstrosity. It’s not necessarily about literally transforming monsters but sometimes more like the real world monstrosity. There’s a whole can of worms with the Hannibal Lecter stuff. There’s a tradition of that being very transphobic and bad, but there’s some recent adaptation that is very good at making the story queer without making queer people as monsters. There’s apparently this zombie TV show that has a canonically queer character, and pirate shows with canonically gay, like Black Sails and Our Flags Mean Death. There’s a lot of people that want that, canonical queerness. Even when it is not canonically there, there’s people writing about it in fanfiction and trying to make it better than how it is portrayed in the actual media. People are talking about Harry Potter werewolf characters and Teen Wolf and stuff like that. 

A: Did you read more contemporary fiction that uses monsters?

N: I wanted to. I read a lot about them. I got to read all about Hannibal Lecter and the various adaptations. I mostly watched some more recent stuff like the Scooby Doo movies and Hotel Transylvania. I had a book I wanted to read but didn’t get to called The Unbecoming of Elizabeth Frankenstein. It’s from an author I really like who wrote a series imagining Vlad the Impaler as a woman. I really wanted to read that book because it is the story of Frankenstein from Elizabeth’s perspective. I did read My Favorite Thing is Monsters, which came out relatively recently. I read a lot of papers about more recent things. I mostly looked at the children’s monster media of recent times because they are adaptations of these classic monsters.  I read about TV shows that are happening now that are like True Blood, that vampire one that came out in the early 2000s, geared more towards adult with queer characters or queer coded characters.

I couldn’t fit in watching a whole TV show at this point of the semester, so I mostly read about them. I watched Vamp, which is an 80s movie, so that’s relatively more recent than the 1890s when Dracula was written. I did look into a lot of contemporary stuff, but there is much more of a market for television shows about this than there is [in other media]. All of the horror movies now are making their own monsters – which is good and everything – and I probably could have gone down the route of looking at these movies, but to be honest I don’t love horror movies, which seems wild since I am doing this project. I don’t really like the jumpscare sort of stuff. I did read about Babadook, which is a queer icon, but in the actual text of the movie is a metaphor for grief. I am familiar with the Monster High series and those movies. Oh, and I watched Turning Red, which is a shapeshifter thing. 

A: What are some of the key concepts or terms that you learned about in this that might help people going into Monster Theory?

N: The very first thing I read was these seven theses of monster theory that really sums it up very well. I did my own version of that that’s not quite the same on the first page of this [the chapbook]. The important thing is that monsters cross the lines of category and blur the boundaries. They very rarely die without coming back again… it’s a trope but also it means that they never really die. They are drawn from cultural stereotypes and what the cultural fears are. They are very specific to cultures. They usually represent a warning that doing “this” sort of thing is bad. Looking at it from a writer’s perspective, you don’t want to get “queerness is monstrous,” but “monsters are themselves inherently queer” because they cross lines and don’t fit into boxes and they explicitly reject categorization. And that is what queerness is, messing with the categories. Some of the important things for the old texts are like Freud’s “what makes something uncanny.” Julia Kristeva’s abjection is another important concept. 

A: What is the significance of the name of this project?

N: To Build a Queer. I titled the name of my presentation How to Build a Queer because I wanted to focus more on the theory and the steps on what I think is important doing this work instead of just talking about the work I did. I chose that because I was going to do How to Build a Monster but I think there are lots of guides on how to build a monster on the internet. To me, it wasn’t just about writing a monster but queerness in monster stories. There’s also the shock value to it, that this is an unapologetically queer piece of work.

English Honor Society News

From the UMF chapter of Sigma Tau Delta, the International English Honor Society, chapter member Autumn Koors Foltz is the recipient of a Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library Internship. This is a competitive internship, so if you see Autumn on campus share your congratulations on a job well done. 

In other news, UMF alumnus and Honor Society member Darby Murnane had an essay published on Charlotte Temple, which they originally wrote in Misty Krueger’s English 380 class on transatlantic women writers and then revised for submission to The Sigma Tau Delta Review (Volume 19, 2022). You can read it here.

For more information on the UMF branch of Sigma Tau Delta, visit the chapter’s Facebook page.

Review of Kenny Leon’s Much Ado About Nothing

Keith Richter

July 27, 2021

I thoroughly enjoyed Kenny Leon’s Much Ado About Nothing, though it has been a while since I’ve seen any stage production, maybe I enjoyed it more since it’s been so long since seeing any stage productions. Nonetheless it was a fun viewing experience, the actors and actresses brought a wonderful playfulness to the story and held my full attention for the entirety of production. The modernization of the play was also a great touch, Benedick vaping and yelling “Kobe” as he leapt from hiding spot to hiding spot, barber shop talk, there were a handful of fun modernizations that added a level of complexity to the play. Another layer that was added to the play that shifted the perspective of the play was the cast, it was an all black casting. Along with the all black cast there were touches that were added that I think were to pay homage to the continent of Africa and the many different cultures and peoples that come from the 54 different countries of Africa. There is one sequence in particular that stands out to me, that is just before the first wedding of Hero and Claudio. The scene opens up with African drums playing and then three dances energetically burst out on to stage and begin to dance. The dance they preform looks as if it has taken inspiration from multiple different traditions and rituals and made one beautifully preformed dance in costumes that have a pattern on them that seem to also be inspired by African culture.

Another costume design choice that stood out to me was the costume of one of the dancers in the masquerade scene. One of the costumes worn by the dancers had long light fabric tassels hanging from her chest and back. Now this could be a bit of a stretch but this costume reminded me of the outfits worn by the Bobo people that live in Burkina Faso in Western Africa. While these people are most commonly known for their masks that are worn in rituals, the costumes they wear with the mask is what this dancer/actress’s costume reminds me of. With their masks the Bobo tribe will dress in these costumes that look like they’re composed of long tassel like material that hangs and swings as they dance much like the actress/dancer in Much Ado About Nothing.

These two costume choices and dance sequences I think and feel were Kenny Leon paying respect and homage to the Continent and the many different Countries that is home to all these different cultures and peoples. This also brings these cultures to the stage for more people to see and spark curiosity in those that may have never been exposed to this kind of cultural melting pot experience and may push them to explore and learn more about these cultures that Leon has brought to the stage. Kenny Leon’s Much Ado About Nothing was a wonderful rendition of Shakespeare’s work that brought a great mixture of modern culture and different African cultures to the stage to shift the play enough to shift the perspective of the viewer into a new but similar viewing experience.

Reclaiming Much Ado About Nothing for a Modern Audience

By: Tyler Battist

July 26, 2021

Kenny Leon’s Much Ado About Nothing successfully brings a refreshing and modern twist to the classic Shakespeare play. Leon’s adaptation is set in the near future with an all-Black cast, and begins with modern political imagery. Leonato’s home has a huge “Stacey Abrams 2020” banner, and the play is set in Georgia, where Stacy Abrams is one of the state’s most well known political figures. The protestor imagery as well as the civil war-like references are reflective to the current political climate and racial unrest in contemporary America.

Much of the plot and dialogue included in Leon’s adaptation is true to Shakespeare’s original. However, the futuristic twist makes it enjoyable and more relatable to a modern audience. This version of Much Ado About Nothing kept many of the same lines from the original play, which creates an interesting contrast when presented by an all-Black cast. While some overtly racist and nationalist lines were left out of the play, the cast managed to provide a unique, and often comedic, delivery of the old English language used in the original.

The intersection between misogyny and racism are at the forefront of Much Ado About Nothing. The main conflict of the plot centers on Brooks’s character’s virginity and how all women of Shakespeare’s time were meant to be chaste. When considering how Black women’s bodies have been treated in America historically, a lot of unpleasant things come to mind. When thinking back to times of slavery, we conjure images of back-breaking physical labor; sexual assaults at the hands of slave-owners; and Black women being forced to nurse white babies, often at the nutritional expense of their own children. In modern times, this hatred toward Black women’s bodies can be seen in the form of racist policies regarding their hair in military setting and throughout the world of sports; the hypersexualization forced upon Black women, is often combined with backlash about their body types or how they choose to dress; and numerous other more insidious ways as compared to historical times.

The play opens with Danielle Brooks performing Marvin Gaye’s of “What’s Going On?” which was written about protestors of the Vietnam War in the 60’s. The lyrics of the song signal to the inequalities and injustices in America, which become especially poignant when it’s melded with parts of “America the Beautiful”. Shortly thereafter, the soldiers enter the scene with Don Pedro, holding picket signs stating “I Am Human” and “Hate Is Not a Family Value” amongst others messages. This conjures images in the viewers’ minds of both Gaye’s time and our present day.  Today, policy brutality towards Black men, women, and children has steadily increased over the last several years, as has the traction and prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The silly tone of the play mixed with the seriousness of its subject matter leaves viewers intrigued and pleasantly unsure of how they should be feeling. This modern interpretation of Shakespeare goes to show that modern updates can make Shakespeare universally enjoyable and relatable for all people. I find Kenny Leon’s production of Much Ado About Nothing to be an amazing way to bring Shakespeare to a modern audience in a more digestible format than the original play.

Kenny Leon’s Masterful Adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing

Sara Szantyr

Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s popular comedies. It follows Leonato, a respectable aristocrat, who lives with his young daughter Hero, his amusing and clever niece Beatrice, and his older brother Antonio. Leonato is prepared to receive numerous friends who have returned from combat when the play begins. Among the pals are Don Pedro and two soldiers: Claudio, a young nobleman, and Benedick, who is constantly cracking hilarious jokes, frequently to the detriment of his colleagues. Don John, Don Pedro’s illegitimate brother, is another character. Don John is somber and spiteful, which causes issues for the other characters throughout the play.

Kenny Leon’s production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park is an extremely effective adaptation of Shakespeare’s original work. It’s innovative and stunning. Kenny Leon, director of this production, and his talented ensemble have filled the production with flare, charm, and personality. Beginning with the casting, conventions are abandoned. Firstly, a traditionally white cast is changed for an all black cast, which in itself is incredible and a breath of fresh air. The casting of Danielle Brooks, a self described plus-sized woman in the role of the beautiful and witty Beatrice is especially stunning. Her counterpart Grantham Coleman as Benedick also does an amazing job playing off Brooks’ spunk. While the plot appears to revolve around Claudio and Hero’s relationship, it is Beatrice and Benedick who steal the show. Both Brooks and Coleman bring a certain freshness to the play’s dialogue that

helps to create a new take of the 423 year old text. The smartness and grit that both of these actors use to deliver their lines is extremely memorable. Like mentioned previously Brooks is a black, plus sized woman, however Leon never tries to make that a focal point of the play at all. Instead Leon allows Brooks’ charm and beauty to take the lead in her performance, rather than her race and size.

Music is a key element throughout the play, and Leon chooses many interesting songs that many may not expect. For example, the play opens to a mashup of “America the Beautiful,” and an a cappella rendition of Marvin Gaye’s hit song “What’s Going On,” lead by Brooks, while the other women on stage stop braiding each other’s hair and checking their phones to join in. Although this serves as a foreshadowing to the audience that this performance will have a contemporary twist, this mashup also expresses a fundamental theme of the play: that love, rather than violence, is the only solution to a conflict. The choice of Gaye’s “What’s Going On” is also highly purposeful and serves to relate the play to contemporary issues such as Black Lives Matter. Gaye’s song has the line “Don’t punish me with brutality. Talk to me, so you can see. Oh, what’s going on” in sync with the lyrics of “America the Beautiful” creates a haunting atmosphere. Leon uses every part of the play beautifully to connect the original narrative to a narrative that is meaningful to a modern audience.

Overall, Kenny Leon does an incredible job of adapting Shakespeare’s original work to a new audience. He refined the play for patrons unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s writings, without losing any of the original charm and also demonstrated how timeless the concepts in Shakespeare’s works can be. However, he also uses the play to demonstrate how race works in our time.

Much Ado About Something: Shakespeare & Race Brought to the Forefront

Amy Wiggins

July 26, 2021

“You always write the specifics and then you’ll have a chance at saying something universal”— August Wilson

It is a warm spring or summer night that surrounds the Delacorte Theatre Stage in Central Park, New York City. A public performance produced by the famed “Shakespeare in the Park” campaign is about to begin. Populating the stage already is a large, brick-lined prop house complete with a balcony and a leisure set complete with decorative chairs and a table on the front lawn. Sprawled across the balcony to face the audience is a banner boldly stating, “Stacy Abrams 2020!”. Three African-American women emerge from the front door onto the stage casually, while a fourth comes onto the balcony. She smiles at the audience for a moment, and proceeds with a beautiful alto rendition of  Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On?, carrying the cast to a rousing America The Beautiful. Kenny Leon’s 2019 production of Much Ado About Nothing combines compelling performances, comedic happenstance, a few song and dance numbers— and even a touch of social relevance— to create a theatre experience that places the concept of race in Shakespearean comedy (or more specifically, the act of performing it) in a brand new light.

Its plot largely follows Shakespeare’s original vision: the whirlwind courtship and wedding between soldier Claudio and noblewoman Hero are caught in a plot to destroy a prince’s reputation and a more innocent ploy to make two bickering individuals— Beatrice, the cousin of Hero and Benedict, the best friend and comrade of Claudio— fall in love. For fans of lighthearted romance, the verbal sparring turned to expressions of love will be a delight!

Although its text is present in full, the actors’ performances and the set’s design take many creative liberties. It is briefly explained at the start that the setting is Aragon, Georgia (c. Spring 2020). The unchanging stage reminded me of a modern sitcom, and the characters’ presentations carried this impression through to the end— from the use of modern clothing one might see in store windows to even modernized speech patterns. In fact, the only costuming aspects true to the original time period that I could see were instances with the soldiers entering and leaving the estate. With this context in mind, each cast member absolutely shines in their role— particularly Danielle Brooks as the iconic Beatrice, whose quarrelling with Benedict (played by the equally captivating Grantham Coleman) carries the heart of both the text and the adaptation by providing much of their humor.

The fact that Leon gathered an all-African American cast turns out to be a milestone for the legacy of race in Shakespeare, as most roles in historical productions were cast to caucasian men. In an interview with PBS’ Great Performances, he states his approach is based on Shakespeare’s potential reaction to the production if he were alive today, and analyzing his intent. He summarizes the choice of setting, citing it as rightfully important that the play should focus on a black community in light of the polarizing political circumstances the United States has faced over the last three years. An example that stands out is the signs the soldiers carry at the beginning of the play: some say, “Hate Is Not A Family Value”, and “I Am A Person”— which immediately harkens back to the protests and struggle many communities have faced to gain rights withheld from them in the near past. The cast is also challenged by the allusions to real-world contexts, as well as the audience, if they were to imagine such a spread of misinformation and “at face-value” treatment of a community or person happening today— events which have unfortunately escalated to an appalling level over the last decade. Even ourselves, as casual observers, are especially challenged— to think critically of the classic formulas and media which we consume on a daily basis, and to re-work the construct of something previously accessible to only some into a universal tool that can be engaged with and adapted by all communities.

How Lucy Negro, Redux Exemplifies Artistic Process

By Nik Shultz

July 26, 2021

While those that study the Bard know that his works were created for the common man, today it can seem that Shakespeare is on a lofty pedestal, only to be accessed and appreciated by an elite, educated, and white few. In her book Lucy Negro, Redux: The Bard, a Book, and a Ballet, Caroline Randall Williams brings readers on a journey not only of the mystery of Shakespeare’s “Dark Woman” but creating a space for herself within Shakespeare’s canon.

The first part of Lucy Negro, Redux is the poetry book originally published in 2015. It is a collection of poems by Williams, with short bits of prose throughout. The second part is a transcript of a conversation between Williams and Paul Vasterling, who choreographed and directed a ballet inspired by Williams’ book. The final piece is the libretto of that ballet.

William’s poetry tells the story of how she began exploring the theory that one Black Lucy Negro was the subject of Shakespeare’s “Dark Woman” sonnets, and it tells the story of how Williams imagines Black Lucy and her relationship to Shakespeare. It also tells the stories of Williams’ experience as a Black American woman and her relationships to white men. Many of the poems are titled with lines of Shakespeare’s sonnets, bringing him into conversation with Williams’ as more than just a subject. Thus, the poetry section of the book is many things coming together in a patchwork.

The ballet draws on Williams’ book, but it adds Vasterling’s experience as a gay man in the form of the “Fair Youth,” another subject of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The performance contains dance, music, and poetry, which Williams and Vasterling discuss as each being their own things that come together to form something new, like potatoes, carrots, and meat forming a roast, rather than the ingredients of a cake coming together to form a cake. Ballet itself has a place on a pedestal of culture similar to Shakespeare, and structure quality that can mimic the sonnet. The music however turns away from classical and draws on African and American Southern sounds and instruments. And there is of course Williams’ poetry being spoken by her throughout the ballet. Vastly different elements come together in creating a story of “fraught relationships with the idea of straight white men.”

The conversation piece can almost be thought of as the thread that pulls the ballet and the book together in the quilt of this project, as Williams and Vasterling discuss how the book became a ballet. And as they point out in this conversation, the worlds of Shakespearean canon and ballet, have both been places to exclude black women. This strange patchwork of elements, and all of their elements, coming together in Lucy Negro, Redux: The Bard, a Book, and a Ballet create not just a dialogue between the exclusionary arts and the otherness they exclude, but a space within these high arts for otherness. It is brilliant and hopeful art, and even more than that. In its story of growth from book to ballet to book again, it exemplifies all of what art can and should: not a piece to be preserved under glass, but an ever growing and changing thing that anyone can add on to or use to tell their own story.