When Shakespeare Meets Black Lives Matter

For us in Cary, NC, the great cultural disappointment of the summer was the cancellation of the annual Summerfest concert series, when the NC Symphony plays at the magical outdoor pavilion known as Koka Booth Amphitheater (and I’m sure you can guess why). In New York, another great summer tradition fell as well–the free Shakespeare in the Park performances presented by the Public Theater in Central Park.

However, PBS, through its Great Performances series, is giving us a substitute. Now until September 12, you can download for FREE a filmed version of last year’s Shakespeare in the Park production–Much Ado About Nothing.

Much Ado About Nothing is one of the best known and most accessible of Shakespeare’s comedies; it is one of the Shakepearean plays I sometimes teach in my high school literature classes. It can be enjoyed even by people who say that they “don’t like Shakespeare.” However, this version may be appreciated by an even wider audience because it is a contemporary rendition set in an African American community.

Director Tony Award winner Kenny Leon ( a Tony Award winner for American Son and A Raisin in the Sun) has transplanted the play from its original setting in 16th century Italy to an Atlanta suburb in 2020 that is awash in the Black Lives Matters movement. The sharp-tongued, bickering protagonists–Shakespeare’s version of Sam and Diane in TV’s Cheers— are played by black stars of both screen and stage. Benedict is played by Grantham Coleman, who appeared in the TV shows The Americans and Buzzer along with many outstanding theatrical productions, while the role of Beatrice goes to Danielle Brooks, who was on Orange is the New Black for six years and was nominated for a Tony for her performance as Sofia in the 2015 revival of The Color Purple. So, some serious star presence right there.

What seems to be great about this production is that they have given it a completely modern air without changing the text. While the play does incorporate 20th century music and dancing, the words haven’t been changed. However, the actors perform with expressively black accents and phrasing that bring quite a different twist to the classic dialogue.

For example, watch this short clip from the 1993 movie of Much Ado About Nothing, which stars Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson.

Now view some of the same scene from this clip from the show available on the PBS website at: https://www.pbs.org/wnet/gperf/i-wonder-that-you-be-still-talking-signor-benedick/10262/

Here is a short video discussing how the production has managed to make a 400+ years-old-play seem so contemporary: yhttps://www.pbs.org/wnet/gperf/much-ado-about-nothing-why-relevant-today/10346/.

It looks like “Must See on my PC” content to me! So I’m looking forward to streaming it, hopefully this weekend. If you would like to see it as well, just go to: https://www.pbs.org/wnet/gperf/much-ado-about-nothing-full-episode/10194/ anytime between now and September 12.

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