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.

Ballet, Binaries, and Shakespeare

Katherine E. Berube

July 26, 2021

Caroline Williams’s Lucy Negro, Redux The Bard, A Book, and A Ballet wields powerful prose with all the grace and emotional invocation as the thematic dance style suggests. Inspired by and in response to Shakespeare’s well known “Dark Lady” sonnets, Williams dares to voice a black woman’s dream within the confines of this white man’s legacy. Using modern flair in the form of poetry, and later with a ballet performance of her work, she cleverly challenges Shakespeare’s traditional literary devices as she imposes and makes real the fictional “Dark Lady” as a gateway to express her own feelings regarding misguided stereotypes against women of color. It is a defiant and grounding experience, both visually on the page as well as felt in the lines and words she carefully crafts together.

Author Caroline Randall Williams

“Lucy Negro / I am you / Lucy Negro / You can become anything I say / From page to clenched thigh / From that day to this / Lucy Negro / (Varieties of Other-ness be damned) / There is beauty in the dark / Lucy /.” (“BLACKLUCYNEGROIII”, Lucy Negro, Redux pg. 14)

She combats the centuries old binary, born during the early Renaissance period and prominent throughout Shakespeare’s life in english society, with an iron tongue and sharp rhetoric.This pervasive ideology, known as the Black/White Binary where “blackness” equals vice and “whiteness” equals virtue, has permeated throughout history. It has set the stage for some of the most hurtful stereotypes against people of color, quite literally in the world of theater as well as within the bounds of societies everywhere. This collection of powerful poems seeks to break the shackles of stereotypes that not only people of color face, but especially the ones that women of color face. It is a reflection of both Williams and the woman Williams believes to live inside the “Dark Lady” sonnets. It’s an unapologetic embrace of self-love and worth, both for Williams and the “Dark Lady.”

Then will I swear that beauty herself is black, / And all they foul that thy complexion lack.” (William Shakespeare, Sonnet CXXXII)

In a time where we are constantly challenging traditional historical ideals, as well as striving for innovative initiatives, especially within the literary world, Williams’s poetic reflection on Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady” is a beautiful and effective weapon of prose in our English arsenal. In giving a voice to this fictional woman, dubbed “Lucy”, Williams gives a voice to the hundreds of black women out there searching for the right words to pierce deaf ears. It’s a black woman’s battlecry built to forge new ideologies and abolish the prejudice gilding that renaissance binary.

Author Caroline Randall Williams and Dancer Kayla Rowser

In her final poem, Williams allows readers to become privy to “Lucy’s” raw heart, bleeding with her own firm and confident resolve. “…I am not a partridge, or a ruby. I am a potato, a beetroot. Not a precious bird or jewel, but a dirt-dug tube. Rustle me, rub me all over, and I will muddle your interiors with flecks of brown earth. You will sigh at your soiled hands and then you will put them in your pockets to pay for it.” (Lucy Negro, Redux pg. 74)

It’s a stunning conclusion, reminding readers of who really began this book. Though we were along for Williams’s journey, “Lucy” was always the catalyst and the conclusion. She was the inspiration, a muse for both Shakespeare and Williams to wield. By weaving the untold tale of Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady” into one of black female empowerment, Williams creates a truly revolutionary work that leaves an unforgettable mark on those that read it. It’s a work that proves embracing your “otherness” is the only confidence you need to thrive in a world run on prejudiced judgment.

Luce Negro: Redux, An Empowering Exploration of Race and Sexuality

Maev Rogers

July 26, 2021

[TW: R*pe]

In 2015, perhaps one of the most creative interpretations of Shakespeare’s work, to date, was published: Lucy Negro, Redux, written by Caroline Randall Williams. Her previous works, a children’s book, The Diary of B. B. Bright, Possible Princess, and a cookbook, Soul Food Love: Healthy Recipes Inspired by One Hundred Years of Cooking In a Black Family didn’t prepare the world for her debut as author of a collection of sexually charged yet empowering poetry. Williams’ poetry weaves around historical documents, Shakespeare’s sonnets, and a personal narrative to bring to life Lucy Negro––a Black prostitute from 16th century London, England, and, potentially, Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady.” 

With a degree in English and classical training in Shakespearean acting, Williams skillfully deconstructs Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays until they’re just a few words, an unfinished sentence, almost a question only to take on the task of answering these questions through her poetry, poetry that creates a seamless fusion between the 16th and 21st centuries. This fusion allows her to explore the themes of race and sexuality through a lens that reminds the audience of how far we’ve come, but also how far we have to go. In addition to these themes, religion (particularly Christianity), pain, and slavery also make frequent appearances throughout this book. The exploration of the intersection of these many themes reveals some new, and some quite old, ideas for the audience to consider. Williams writes “The idea of her / warm brown / body long stretching / under his hands / is a righteous want––” (p. 7). By uniting the themes of race, sexuality, and religion in this quote, Williams crafts an almost godly presence for Lucy Negro on the page. 

The page that Lucy exists on becomes an important part of the poetry. Williams allows the blank spaces and the orientation of the words on the page to speak just as loudly as the words themselves. 

Excerpt from “Sublimating Lucy. Tired of Hearing Certain Questions” (p. 43)

In the excerpt pictured above, Williams broaches the topics of rape, miscegenation, and lineage by having her poetry trickle down what resembles an ancestry chart. This is one of many instances in the book where words and space come together to deliver a powerful message. 

Lucy Negro, Redux, fortuitously, soon fell into the hands of Paul Vasterling, a choreographer, director, and fellow at both the Virginia Center for the Arts and NYU’s Center for Ballet and the Arts. Upon reading the book Vasterling thought, “‘Oh wow, this could be a ballet” (p. 86). With the help of other talented artists such as Kayla Rowser (the dancer who played the role of Lucy) and Rhiannon Giddens (the composer), Lucy Negro, Redux: The Ballet was being premiered just four years later. Around the same time that the ballet premiered, an updated version of Lucy Negro, Redux was published––Lucy Negro, Redux: The bard, a book, and a ballet. This version includes the transcript of a conversation between Vasterling and Williams, segments from the ballet libretto, and photos from the creation and rehearsal of the play. 

Kayla Rowser, Paul Vasterling, Owen Thorne (p. 102)

The conversation between Vasterling and Williams provides a fascinating look into how they added physicality and movement, in the form of ballet, to Williams’ poetry. Vasterling describes how “the movement can fill in the spaces between the words” (p. 80). The libretto and photos that accompany this conversation bring a new perspective to William’s work as they emphasize Shakespeare’s physical presence in a way the poems couldn’t, or chose not to.

When I first started reading Lucy Negro: Redux: The bard, a book, and a ballet, I was a bit taken aback by how overtly sexualized the poetry was especially after spending a class discussing how women of color are typically fetishized/oversexualized. However, Lucy Negro: Redux: The bard, a book, and a ballet isn’t just another book filled with a white man’s commentary on women’s bodies and sexuality. In fact, Caroline Randall Williams created quite the opposite. She created a story of both discovery and reclamation, a story of a Black woman finding power within the race and gender confines of her time. Lucy Negro: Redux: The bard, a book, and a ballet masters the delicate balance between exploring the themes of race and sexuality and empowering the reader while the patchwork of genres means that it will appeal to a diverse audience.  

ENG 250H Reviews of Shakespeare Retellings

Shakespeare mural in London, close to the Thames River and The Globe theater. Photo credit: Misty Krueger

This summer students in Misty Krueger’s ENG 250H Shakespeare course, which focused on the topic of race, wrote reviews of two 2019 adaptations of Shakespeare’s work.

One adaptation is a 2019 live performance of Much Ado about Nothing for Shakespeare in the Park. As the reviews will explain, the director, Kenny Leon, stuck closely to Shakespeare’s text but changed the setting and added some interesting elements to update the play.

The second adaptation is a 2019 ballet based on a 2015 collection of poems, Caroline Randall Williams’ Lucy Negro, Redux. First Williams was inspired by Shakespeare’s plays and then by his sonnet sequence, particularly a figure known as the “dark lady.” Then she wrote some poems about this figure (Lucy Negro, also known as Black Luce) and intertwined her own life story into the narrative. Choreographer Paul Vasterling was inspired by this collection and along with the poet and a bluegrass singer (Rhiannon Giddens) created the ballet, which was staged in Nashville, TN.

Let’s see what the students thought about these retellings of Shakespeare’s work!