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.