The title of the play currently enjoying its world premiere at Miami Lakes’ Main Street Players is meant to incite a reaction. It’s called “Shakespeare is a White Supremacist.” Could this work be the latest of our ongoing cultural reassessments of problematic white men in history—a woke tipping of theatre’s ultimate sacred cow?
It turns out that’s not, in a direct sense, what Andrew Watring’s play is about; it’s far more interesting and nuanced than the puckish provocation of its title. It doesn’t condemn Shakespeare the author so much as the centuries-long tradition of casting his plays with lily-white leads to the exclusion of equally talented people of color, an ongoing problem that can charitably be credited to a failure of imagination and more bluntly be ascribed to inherent racism. “Shakespeare is a White Supremacist” chronicles the fallout when a well-meaning white director attempts to remedy this issue by a mounting an almost fully multi-ethnic, multi-racial production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and discovers that the road to hell is paved with, well, you know what.
In an opening monologue, the character simply known as Director (Matthew Salas) cuts to the chase. Speaking of people like himself, and the board members and executive directors of theater companies, “We’re all white, and we don’t fucking talk about it.” But his production of “Midsummer” will be a game changer, a paradigm shifter, a shot from the bow of 21st century equity, diversity and inclusion. There’s only one white member of his cast, known as Actress (Erin Wilbanks)—note that the white characters, like too many people of color in theatre history, have anonymous descriptive names, as opposed to three-dimensional ones—while the rest of his ensemble share heritages and skin tones that reflect the broadness of the American experiment.
These include Juliet (Annette Monk), an Afro-Latina woman; Macbeth (Roderick Randall), a young Black man; Titania (Chastity Hart), a young Black woman; and two light-skinned Latina women who have benefited from a history of “passing”: Ophelia (Vanessa Tamayo) and Viola (Katlin Svadbik), the latter of whom happens to be in a romantic relationship with Director.
Favoring a discursive, nonlinear storytelling approach, Watring’s play, set always in a nondescript rehearsal room, bounces between the actors’ auditions and their preparations for “Midsummer,” their candid conversations with each other, and the subterranean resentments that boil to the surface in moving, fourth-wall-breaking soliloquies. Relatively short scenes are divided by sound cues of cheering audiences, tribal drums and twinkling stars, and as a result, the show adopts a sketchlike quality, with parts that hang loose, grasping for a whole. It’s a structure that searches for a central dramatic thrust, so much so that when a catharsis arrives, it hasn’t been adequately built up; it’s just there.
And yet there is so much truth in Watring’s shambolic skeleton, delivered so skillfully and perceptively from a pitch-perfect cast, that “Shakespeare is a White Supremacist” still ranks among Main Street Players’ strongest and most important endeavors. It raises so many of the issues that have been swirling around theatre companies nationwide: Preconceived biases toward white skin, African-American and Afro-Latina actors feeling erased from narratives and afraid to speak their truths, and the perpetually looming specter of stereotypes, even subconscious ones—the angry Black man, the sexually uninhibited Latina woman. “Shakespeare is a White Supremacist” addresses what it means to act “Black” or, its obverse, “not Black enough” in the eyes of white directors and predominantly white patrons.
The director expertly juggling and concretizing these relevant concepts is Carey Brianna Hart, a woman of color and a multihyphenate actor-director-designer, whom it is fair to assume has firsthand experience with the very issues with which Watring so eloquently wrestles. So do the actors, whose fierce conviction blurs distinctions between fiction and non-, diegesis and documentary. Annette Monk is utterly convincing—and transfixing—when asserting her ability to portray Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, despite being perennially passed over for the part. Vanessa Tamayo and Roderick Randle are gifted enough actors to play Shakespeare “poorly” in their auditions, and to belie this presentation with much subtlety and gravitas throughout the rest of the play; Randle in particular has never been better.
Erin Wilbanks, as the overenthusiastic white “Actress” who expresses gratitude “just to be included,” contributes the play’s most effective comic relief, and allows the show’s white audiences to know what it feel likes to be in the minority for a change. And Matthew Salas, as Director, dexterously navigates a transition from wide-open optimism about his revolutionary production to becoming an instigator of its collapse—even if Watring’s script could have done a better job setting it up.
As pungent in its truth bombs as it is in this market, perhaps “Shakespeare is a White Supremacist” is even better suited toward regions with less representation than here; perhaps it should be mounted in Mobile, or Charleston, West Virginia.
South Florida has been an especially progressive community, particularly in the past few years, which have resulted in an outsized effort to expand representation, whether it’s on boards, casting calls or the Carbonell Awards. GableStage produced a predominantly Black “Antony and Cleopatra” in 2014.
I’d like to think we’re at the forefront of making a play like “Shakespeare is a White Supremacist” a relic of a less enlightened time. But it’s easy for me to say—I’m white.
“Shakespeare is a White Supremacist” runs through Oct. 31 at Main Street Players, 6766 Main Street, Miami Lakes. Tickets are $30 adults, or $25 for seniors, students and military. Visit mainstreetplayers.com. For more of Boca magazine’s arts and entertainment coverage, click here.