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.