I discovered the African-American Shakespeare Company last year, when I saw its ad for Twelfth Night and went to see the play. It was innovative and colorful and included a wonderful singer, Leslie Ivy. I thoroughly enjoyed it and decided to keep an eye open for other plays from them.
So that’s how I ended up at Julius Caesar today, in the intimate little Buriel Clay theater at Webster x Fulton. It’s the second-last weekend of its run; there are only two more shows, 31 March 2012 at 8 p.m. and April 1 at 3 p.m. and I can’ make it next weekend. It had to be today. I’m so glad I went.
Director Peter Callender set this, one of Shakespeare’s most political plays, in a fictionalized West African country, as a parable about the continuing conflicts and unstable regimes in much of Africa. The costumes were army fatigues, mainly camouflage khaki, and the weapons weren’t swords, they were machetes (though sometimes in the battle-scenes, machine-gun fire could be heard off-stage). All the actors spoke with appropriate accents, which were a little difficult to follow until my ear tuned in after about 10-15 minutes.
It was also a story about human politics, with Cassius as the instigator, Brutus as the young idealist often wrong but never in doubt, and Casca as the cynical but practical conspirator. Six actors seamlessly played all the roles. They were entirely believable as comrades, as enemies, and most of all, as people who understood how their world worked.
It felt like being backstage of the evening news… when you read about a coup or two factions in bloody conflict, is this how it starts? If you’ve ever wondered how relevant is Shakespeare, really, this is the play to watch.
[ETA: As a bonus, they have a small exhibition space next to the auditorium, with interesting displays rotating through. Today’s exhibit was about dark-skinned dolls.]