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.

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