Brooklyn Academy of Music stages all-black ‘Julius Caesar’

Opinion

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As you find your seat at BAM’s recent production and U.S. premiere of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Julius Caesar, a group of black actors cavort on stage, laughing and joking, casually passing the day in what appears to be a West African market place, immediately distinguishing this production of Julius Caesar from the Shakespeare you might remember (and loathe) from your 8th grade reading list.

Certainly less romantic, and probably for that reason less popular than say Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar has nonetheless surfaced in the past year in a modern day prison in the Triviani brothers’ film Caesar Must Die, in an all-female production staged at the Donmar Warehouse, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, and now in an all-black production by Gregory Doran, using the political upheaval that has plagued modern day Africa as its backdrop.

Doran’s interpretation takes this classic drama’s transcendent themes – the corrupting influence of personal ambition, the fickle nature of public favor, and the unreliable symbols we pursue in making meaning of the world around us, just to name a few – out of the cool, limestone halls and monuments of ancient Rome, making them work and sweat under the hot, unflinching glare of the African sun.

Anger, humor and sorrow

The play opens with a group of commoners waving around political posters of Caesar – played with veteran command, clarity, and precision by Jeffrey Kissoon – singing as they celebrate Caesar’s victory over Pompeii. Their celebration is cut short when a disgruntled despot rebukes them for their easy devotion, reminding them that they once reveled in the streets as Pompeii paraded by, only to dance on his grave in light of Caesar’s recent victory. This moment starkly highlights the fatally shifting sands of public favor, and foreshadows Caesar’s fate.

You quickly realize that not everyone is as enthusiastic about Caesar’s victory and his place in the hearts of the Roman people.  The tide turns quickly as Cassuis (played by Cyril Nri, whose affected performance while successfully conveying the paranoia and despicable servility of the character does so with a frustrating self-awareness that feels independent of his artistic goals) plots to turn mixed-up Brutus on to his assassination plot.

From there we see Brutus (played by Paterson Joseph) struggle with the decision to overthrow his friend and leader, with Joseph convincingly vacillating between anger,  humor, and sorrow, all the while making felt, with furrowed brow and circumspect glances and asides to the audience, the thinly veiled barrier between his public face and private torment.

Bathed in blood

As the story progresses, Caesar’s wife Calpurnia (played by Samantha Lawson) experiences strange dreams in which the people of Rome bathe in Caesar’ blood. This gruesome premonition coupled with the omen the  soothsayer (an African witchdoctor of sorts covered in tribal paint) offers Caesar – to be wary of the Ides of March –  nearly keeps the would-be Emperor of Rome from taking his senate seat. But, a man of great strength and courage, Kissoon’s Caesar, in perhaps one of the most memorable scenes of the play, bellows “Cowards die many times before their deaths. The valiant never taste of death but once,” taking his place despite his forebodings.

According to the newly appointed Artistic Director, Gregory Doran, this line was also a favorite of Nelson Mandela whose heavily annotated edition of Shakespeare’s complete works passed around the prisoners of South Africa’s Robben island, and served as one of the chief inspirations for this production, highlighting for Doran the parallels between the political stage of ancient Rome and Africa’s fraught political history over the past 50 years.

Of course we know how Caesar’s decision plays out, and after his assassination what follows does indeed resemble the fall of any number of regimes we’ve seen plastered on the news in recent years, with a statue of Caesar, in a moment that seems modeled after the iconic collapse of Saddam Hussein’s statue, toppling to the ground.

Following Caesar’s fall, Brutus and Antony (given harsh treatment by the strapping Ray Fearon whose unvaried yelling on stage seems to leave him and his performance hoarse, exhausting and exhausted) play cat and mouse on the battlefield of Phillippi, where Brutus and Cassius eventually commit suicide to avoid capture by Antony and Octavius.

Strengths and weaknesses

This high adrenaline production  definitely has moments where it soars, specifically any scene graced by the white lightening that is Kissoon, with other notable performances by Joseph Mydell as Casca who steals several scenes from both Joseph and Nri, and Brutus’ fearsome (if at times overwrought) wife, Portia, played by Adjoa Andoh . However, there are also times when the production seems weakened by the heat of its own fever, rendered less powerful by its wrathful, un-nuanced delivery.

The brilliant strokes of music offered by Akintayo Akinbode, who utilizes traditional African music mingled with elements of jazz helps here, giving several scenes an emotional life and depth that might have otherwise been lost. This is most notable when Brutus asks his servant Lucius to play a song for him as he is lost in a reverie, surfacing a tenderness in their relationship that could easily pass for homoerotic undertones.

Vince Herbert’s lighting also helps to effectively transports us, but Michael Vale’s imposing, blocky set, meant to evoke the sand blown monuments of ancient Africa feels awkward, encumbering the movement of the actors.

Overall this production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is solid, successfully using its new context without feeling one bit contrived or gimmicky, in fact, only enhancing the significance of the timeless themes, granting a contemporary audience greater access by drawing suggestive parallels to current affairs of state.

As you watch Brutus struggle with his conscience and pour over every decision and potentially misread sign (divining meaning in every word, action and symbol as desperate men tend to do) you may very well wonder if this play is in fact a metaphor for all of our very brief moments on the stage of life, spent in suspense, wrestling with what will happen and what it will mean even though we all know how it ends.  To take a page out of Caesar’s playbook, “Seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.”

Chase Quinn is a freelance writer, art critic, and budding novelist, who has worked with several leading human rights organizations in the U.S. and the U.K., promoting social and economic justice. Follow Chase on Twitter at @chasebquinn.