When director Kenny Leon approached “Orange Is the New Black’s” Danielle Brooks about playing the lead role of Beatrice in his adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” she rejected a film role to take the part instead. For her, this was a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to make waves as a female lead by bringing a plus-size woman of color into a world traditionally occupied by svelte Caucasian men and women.
Brooks says she is dedicated to using her platform to “break down walls” by accepting roles that allow her to change American culture and Hollywood messaging to young girls and women.
“What’s important to me is what I’m adding to American theater and adding to Hollywood, and I feel like I have a bigger impact with doing this theater gig because I’ve never seen a black woman let alone a plus-size Beatrice before either on Broadway or off-Broadway, or in Shakespeare in the Park,” said Brooks. “It’s encouraging for the next generation of people that relate to me to say ‘well, if Danielle Brooks can do Beatrice in Shakespeare in the Park in front of 1800 people, I can, too.’”
Shakespeare’s plays may have been written centuries ago, but his stories of mad kings and power-hungry officials are just as relevant today. Leon decided to take this one step further. He didn’t just set his new adaptation of the Bard’s 16th century romantic comedy “Much Ado About Nothing” in modern day — he fast-forwarded a year ahead to 2020.
In his new version, which kicks off Shakespeare in the Park’s summer season, Leon includes a Stacey Abrams political sign and references to futuristic geo-political turmoil, pulling out all the stops to make this “Much Ado” performance a convincing re-imagination of the familiar story. The 25-person cast is entirely comprised of black actors and Leon changed up the story’s setting, moving it from Aragon, Italy, to Aragon, Ga., a small town outside of Atlanta.
“Much Ado About Nothing” is a romantic comedy involving two couples: Beatrice and Benedick and Hero and Claudio. Beatrice and Benedick fall in love and learn to let their guards down while Claudio, head over heels for Hero, hears a rumor that she cheated on him and chaos ensues. Unlike Shakespeare’s tragic dramas, “Much Ado” is filled with comic moments, but between laughs, there’s a social message.
“I looked at ‘Much Ado’ and I thought that it was a perfect play for our times because it’s about a community embracing love and laughter despite of everything that comes against that community,” said Leon. “I figured it’d be a metaphor for what’s happening in America.”
Leon wanted his rendition to be an authentic depiction of what a black community might look like in small town America, circa 2020. For one of the play’s weddings, Leon includes a “jump the broom” ceremony, which he said hearkens back to slave times when it was illegal for slaves to get married and they had to create their own practices to complete the nuptials. Leon also highlights the song “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” which he said is a classic song featured at African-American funerals and weddings, and “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as “The Black National Anthem.” He and choreographer Camille Brown also had the actors perform traditional African dance, hip-hop, jive and modern line dancing onstage.
“I realized what separates us even in this country when we’re talking about cultural and racial division, the differences are that some of our traditions are different,” said Leon. “If you’re Jewish, you have different rituals, when you’re black you have different rituals.”
Ultimately, the play has a life-affirming message that Leon believes is universal.
“I want [the audience] to go home and embrace love and love those people around you and hug your kids and hug your boyfriend and love your country,” Leon said.
“Much Ado About Nothing” will run in Central Park’s Public Theater until June 23.