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BWW Review: Saheem Ali Reinvents Shakespeare In The Park With An Audio RICHARD II That Stresses Color Consciousness


André Holland and Miriam A. Hyman star in a presentation that's nearly equal parts performance and a discussion of American theatre’s relationship with race.

"What does it mean to have a Black man who is deemed unfit to rule and what does it mean to have a Black woman take his place?"

BWW Review: Saheem Ali Reinvents Shakespeare In The Park With An Audio RICHARD II That Stresses Color Consciousness
André Holland
(Photo: Dylan Coulter)

While these questions were not among the themes William Shakespeare had in mind when he penned RICHARD II in the 1590s, they are, as expressed by Professor Ayanna Thompson during radio station WNYC and The Public Theater's audio production of the play, among the issues that drive this invigorating and informative reinvention of Shakespeare In The Park.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated the closing of theatres, director Saheem Ali's production - starring André Holland as the title character, the corrupt and ineffectual final English king of the House of Plantagenet, and Miriam A. Hyman as Henry Bolingbroke, his wronged cousin who would win revenge and succeed Richard as the first Lancaster king, Henry IV - was scheduled to play live at the Delacorte Theater. But instead of disbanding the venture, Ali adapted the text into a 4-part radio drama to be recorded by the actors from their individual locations, which is now streaming for free at The Public Theater's website.

Rather than presenting a straightforward reading, each part, hosted by arts and culture journalist Vinson Cunningham, begins and ends with comments and commentary by both cast members and Shakespeare scholars Thompson and James Shapiro, primarily focused on the significance of having a cast of mostly BIPOC actors playing this verse drama during this time when racial issues have risen in the national conscious. The production, which is dedicated to the Black Lives Matter Movement, becomes nearly equal parts a performance of the play and a discussion of American theatre's relationship with race coupled with an inside look at how these issues were approach by Ali and his company.

Joseph Papp's insistence at the inception of Shakespeare In The Park that all productions be cast with an ensemble of actors who look and sound like the diverse population of New York City was often referred to as colorblind casting, suggesting a universal humanity that asked audiences to disregard skin color. But, as noted by Thompson, this RICHARD II should be regarded as an example of color conscious casting, which requires audiences to regard the characters, despite being written for an all-white theatre culture, as being the same ethnicity as the actors playing them.

"I love the fact that these actors sound so American... and sound Black," she enthusiastically remarks. "It made the words clearer to me."

The great classical actor John Douglas Thompson, whose Duke of York is torn by the family power struggle, relates how he ties the language of the play to his own West Indian heritage.

"I heard those rhythms, remembering my father hanging out in the back yard with his friends and the way they used to talk."

Despite expressing admiration for Joseph Papp and his vision, actor Sean Carvajal, who doubles as the Gardener's Man and The Duke of Surrey, initially questioned the relevance of doing this play "knowing that our country was literally burning down." It was veteran stage jewel Stephen McKinley Henderson, who plays the Gardener and has worked before with his younger colleague, who helped him see the relevance, remembering the days when he was a young actor studying white-authored classics during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.

BWW Review: Saheem Ali Reinvents Shakespeare In The Park With An Audio RICHARD II That Stresses Color Consciousness
Miriam Hyman
(Photo: The Riker Brothers)

With Lupita Nyong'o supplying narration, Ali keeps the tone of the play on an intimate level, often allowing listeners to imagine they are overhearing personal conversations. This also intensifies the beauty of Shakespeare's verse. Isaac Jones' sound design, including such effects as the beeps of hospital machinery and a news announcement of breaking developments, removes the play from its 14th Century setting.

Holland effectively balances Richard's posturing as a wise and strong monarch with the self-pitying sorrow of a lost soul who can't quite get the hang of what it means to be a leader. Hyman's Bolingbroke is one of patience and reserve; a barely-regarded presence who rises in power by emotionlessly keeping focused on the goal. Her interpretation is no doubt facilitated by her belief that "Black women are the most disrespected individuals in the country", and her future king takes advantage of that disrespect.

In a post-performance recap, Holland recalls the many times that, after acting in a play such as Chekhov's THE CHERRY ORCHARD, for example, audience members felt compelled say things like, "You did a really nice job, but you know there weren't really Black people in Russia at that time." This month, the release of HAMILTON's movie has increased the questioning by some of author Lin-Manuel Miranda's choice to have historic white people portrayed by BIPOC actors.

Hopefully, the illuminating concept behind this presentation of RICHARD II will help promote the notion that when it comes to theatre, it's the artists who determine what is real.

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