From the pulsating subwoofer beats, picket signs, and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” sung by the all-black cast’s lead Danielle Brooks (Beatrice) as she entered onstage, the audience knew the evening’s Shakespeare in the Park performance would be politically charged and now. “Now” being America’s 2020 (the campaign banner for Stacey Abrams is boldly displayed) set in the Georgia town of Messina in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING as neighboring soldiers return from war. Don Pedro, the Prince, and his uniformed entourage arrives in a black sedan with a fanfare of sub bass rhythms, his soldiers marching with picket signs. Contemporary live music numbers and infectious celebratory dancing are the highlights of this 2019 Public Theater staging of MUCH ADO. One wished they can jump onstage to join in on “stir the pot.” The sets and colorful costumes are lovingly detailed, from the brick manor's roof turret down to the baby roots of the astroturf grass at the edge of the stage.
Love and deception are mirrored in the two couples of MUCH ADO: Beatrice and Benedick; and Claudio and Hero. Danielle Brooks as Beatrice powers the show with her fierce comedic force. Grantham Coleham as Benedick is the skinny bantam rooster to her voluptuous hen with a sharp tongue, both verbally sparring with the wit of Shakespeare’s prose. Both claim to never marry, and friends plot to reverse that. The tragic couple, Claudio (Jeremie Harris) and Hero (Margaret Odette), are victims of false accusations of infidelity. (“Nothing” in the play’s title is a homophone for “Noting” or slang for gossip and slander.) Their performances are overshadowed by the comedy of Brooks and Coleham, but their tragedy plays up the gender, race, and caste divisions that our society still upholds.
What hurts to a modern audience is the unfairness of the slander and how patriarchal world would believe it and judge a woman. A Prince’s judgment carries more weight than a father’s familial experience. One could extend the unfairness to racial bigotry. Director Kenny Leon (Tony Award winner for A Raisin in the Sun) questions these values of divisive privileges. In a Public Theater interview, Leon states, “I’m reminded that we are fighting for values in America more than anything. MUCH ADO is really about protecting those values of love, family, respect—all those values we say we believe in.” He says further, “I didn’t cast it all black because I wanted an all-black production. I cast it because it came to me in terms of the play about community.”
Family values at the core of this performance is a message that attracted local audiences of color that were willing to picnic in line for an hour or more to wait for free tickets. After a week of rain, the run of the show ends this weekend on June 23. I had wanted an extension of this wonderful version of MUCH ADO, or at least a way of recording this all-black cast performance for YouTube. According to some media sources, this may come to light: PBS’s Great Performances will film this Shakespeare in the Park 2019 production of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING.
Delacorte Theater, Central Park, New York City
Shakespeare in the Park
Play run: May 21 – June 23, 2019