Black Lives Matter in the Public Theater’s Much Ado About Nothing

Five Perspectives on Race and Shakespeare in 2020

On August 14th, PBS is running an encore national broadcast of the Public Theater’s Much Ado About Nothing from last summer. It features an all-Black cast in New York City’s Central Park doing Shakespeare’s romantic comedy under a Stacey Abrams 2020 banner—starring Danielle Brooks and Grantham Coleman, directed by Kenny Leon. This American resetting radically changes the Shakespearean precursor to the modern rom coms in which two people who can’t stand each other end up falling in love.

We studied this performance as first-year college students, this March, around the time our campus closed due to coronavirus. Soon after, the murder of George Floyd reignited #BlackLivesMatter protests around the world—a movement invoked at the start of the Public’s Much Ado.

Black theater is one of America’s most powerful resources for thinking about our nation’s social problems. We hope that, just as the Public made new meanings of this old play, our voices can signal newer, younger, better ways of thinking about Shakespeare that help us uncover truth, gain empathy, and take responsibility for racism. Like the Public’s Much Ado, the Black Lives Matter movement is both a Black story and a human story, both particular to our culture and universal in the justice it seeks.

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Arsh Dhillon, “Black America the Beautiful”

The Public’s Much Ado insists that Black Americans’ protest for civil rights is ongoing and patriotic, emphasizing non-conformity as a foundational ideal in the US, and exposing the racist hypocrisy behind anti-protest sentiment.

Set in Messina, Italy during wartime, Shakespeare’s 1599 play follows the romantic misadventures of upper-class men and women serving Don Pedro, the Prince of Aragon. In his adaptation, Kenny Leon transports the characters to Aragon, Georgia, about an hour outside Atlanta.

A lush, green lawn on stage frames a grand house. The Abrams banner on its balcony evokes the popular 2018 candidate for governor of Georgia. Many thought she would win, but suppressive voting laws disenfranchised a large population of Black voters, resulting in a highly publicized controversy and Abrams’s promise to fight for Black Americans’ voting rights.

Across the Public’s stage, an American flag flies high and proud in the family’s backyard. This layout creates continuity between the patriotic ideals embodied by the flag and the Abrams banner.

Three Black women take the stage—no Elizabethan ruffs and rapiers here. Instead, audiences meet a thriving Black American family—filled with love and enjoying financial success—living in an ex-slave state that seceded from the Union. During the civil rights movement, leaders turned Georgia, despite its traumatic history for Black Americans, into an energizing hub for protest. The state now has a relatively high concentration of middle-class Black families. This one is living the “American dream” that white supremacy stole from most Black Americans.

Danielle Brooks steps out onto the balcony as Beatrice, the lead in this production and a beautiful, self-described “plus-size woman.” The entire show gets its energy from Brooks’s charisma and talent. Barbed banter between her and Grantham Coleman’s Benedick turns to flirting, then love. As the romantic lead, Brooks’s casting conveys one of the production’s central themes—the beauty of non-conformity—which has a powerful political valence as well.

“Mother, mother,” she sings from the balcony, “There’s too many of you crying.” In 1971, Marvin Gaye wrote “What’s Going On” about the plight of Black Americans—“picket lines and picket signs.” He sings from the perspective of a Vietnam War veteran returning to witness civil injustice at home. Even though the civil rights movement had its “end” in 1968, Gaye thought there was more work to do. “Don’t punish me with brutality” clearly resonates in 2020.

Kenny Leon’s reworking of Much Ado About Nothing suggests that an American’s decision to protest their country’s actions is their decision to love it.

Brooks’s “What’s Going On” then blends into “America The Beautiful,” sung by Tiffany Denise Hobbs’s Ursula. How could these two songs—their messages polar opposites—ever go together? Katharine Lee Bates wrote “America The Beautiful” as a love poem for her country, commemorating the Fourth of July. “What’s Going On” grows from protest, “America the Beautiful” from patriotism. Yet Beatrice and Ursula weave the songs together with such ease and grace that the Public’s audiences find the harmony between protest and patriotism.

Shakespeare’s soldiers return from war. Leon has them march on stage holding picket signs—“Hate is not a family value,” “Restore Democracy Now,” “I am a person.” Leon’s reworking of Much Ado About Nothing suggests that an American’s decision to protest their country’s actions is their decision to love it. When Black Americans protest for their rights and independence, however, they are deemed unpatriotic. When white Americans protest, they are continuing the legacy of the patriots who fought in the American Revolution.

Think of Colin Kaepernick, ex-quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, who knelt during the National Anthem before football games, a uniquely American sport. Many said he was disrespecting the American flag. No, he was honoring the flag by calling attention to racism at great personal and professional expense. Seen through the lens of the Public’s Much Ado, Kaepernick is an American patriot, someone who will not stand for an anthem, a society that glorifies hate and injustice.

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Phillip Michalak, “Much Ado About Normalization”

Kenny Leon holds Shakespeare’s Much Ado together with powerfully updated musical transitions. The African and African American music and dance in Leon’s production centers the Black experience in a Shakespearean text, positioning Black art and culture at the core of the English canon for a largely white audience that tends to see Blackness as peripheral to the Western tradition.

Brooks drops a Cardi B “Okurr” at the end of Beatrice’s clapback to the patriarchy: “It is my cousin’s duty to make curtsy and say, ‘Father, as it please you.’ But yet for all that, cousin, let him be a handsome fellow, or else make another curtsy, and say, ‘Father, as it please me.’ Okurr.” Audiences read Beatrice as Cardi, the globally renowned Afrolatina artist from the Bronx who rose to prominence in the predominantly male rap music industry. Meanwhile, the language of the Bronx is celebrated in fusion with Shakespearean English.

Moments later, Shakespeare’s masquerade ball prompts an original hip hop song with a crisp beat and lyrics like “Let’s see what happens if / We make the magic, baby, / We can make it happen maybe.” As dancers Milly Rock and Two Step, an Elizabethan English love story and contemporary Black culture share the dance floor.

One of Shakespeare’s most famous songs, “Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,” becomes “Heart Get Happy.” Shakespeare’s is classical and rigid on a Renaissance lute: “Then sigh not so, but let them go, / And be you blithe and bonny, / Converting all your sounds of woe / Into Hey nonny, nonny.” The Public rewrites it as an uptempo soulful guitar sing-along: “Pack up all your sad songs, / Trade them in for glad songs, / And sing, ‘Na, na, na, na’.”

At Hero and Claudio’s wedding, dancers in dashiki and kente cloth precede the gospel song “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” also recently heard at one of the memorials for civil rights leader and Atlanta Congressman John Lewis. There’s more gospel during Hero’s funeral (don’t worry—she’s still alive)—“Oh, please, goddess of the night / Please forgive these men who took your child … Take us by the hand, and help us understand”—echoing the all-too-frequent funerals Black communities witness today.

It’s R&B during Claudio and Hero’s second wedding: “And as the days turn to years, / My love will never change, / And my heart belongs to only you.” The sounds and feelings of weddings and funerals across cultures unite Elizabethan Protestantism, Central African religions, and African American Christianity.

Historically, when all-Black casts or characters appear, it’s treated as a “black story.” Leon boldly uses African and African American music and dance to unite Black and white cultures in the context of the most sacred tradition in the Christian faith. The Public’s Much Ado is a white story of marriage told through a Black lens: its proud embrace of Blackness co-exists with the romantic comedy that makes Much Ado relatable across cultural differences.

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Bernadette Looney, “Making Shakespeare Not Racist”

As a Black woman who has only lived in “the ‘hood” and has almost exclusively interacted with Black people, racism will forever boggle my mind. I have always been interested in learning about ways that institutions have failed me and other Black people and continue to do so, and ways that people try to remedy these failures.

The Public’s Much Ado is a shining example of its mission to produce “theater of, by, and for all people.” Yet, to make Shakespeare a progressive playwright palatable to 21st-century America, Kenny Leon had to cut several racist lines from Much Ado. These cuts belie Shakespeare’s “universality,” reminding us that Shakespeare and the African-American community were not made for each other.

In contrast to plays like The Merchant of Venice, Othello, and The Tempest, race is not a focus of Much Ado. Yet racism infuses Shakespeare’s celebrated language. He never claims that white-skinned Englishmen are superior to others. He assumes that, and builds metaphors around it.

Shakespeare can be made for everyone, with significant changes, but the original is not for all—never has been, never will be.

How does Benedick say he doesn’t find Hero attractive? “Too brown for a fair praise.” The line contrasts “brown” and “fair,” meaning “fair” should be read as a color. “Fair” doesn’t simply mean “beautiful.” It means “white.” Characters are talking about Hero’s whiteness when they repeatedly refer to “fair Hero.”

Beauty is equated with whiteness, and whiteness with virtue. When Hero’s groom-to-be, Claudio, wrongfully accuses her of infidelity at their wedding, the friar claims she must be innocent because of her “angel whiteness.” If she were guilty, some color would have rushed into her face. Kenny Leon gave that a Nope.

And thank goodness Danielle Brooks did not have to say that she couldn’t get a husband because she is “sunburnt.” Hero later claims Beatrice finds something wrong with any man she looks on: “If [a man is] black, why, nature … made a foul blot.” How absurd would that be from Brooks?

How does Benedick say he has fallen for Beatrice? “If I do not love her, I am a Jew.” Shakespeare’s anti-Black racism is adjacent to his antisemitism, and his Islamophobia. “Be not turned Turk” is how Margaret tells Beatrice to have some faith in herself.

“I’ll hold my mind were she an Ethiope”: that’s how Claudio, thinking Hero is dead, pledges to marry her cousin. Apparently, being Ethiopian is the worst thing Claudio—or is it Shakespeare?—can imagine.

Shakespeare’s plays weren’t made for Black people.

Given the history of America’s treatment of Africans and African-Americans, it’s no surprise that there has been little pushback against Shakespeare’s racist language. Proponents proclaim that Shakespeare is for everyone. Shakespeare can be made for everyone, with significant changes, but the original is not for all—never has been, never will be. And it’s okay to admit that. It’s dangerous to avoid that. Claims for Shakespeare’s “universality” are disguised racism.

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Sonia Kangaju, “Why Don John Won’t Sing in His Cage”

Don John, “the bastard brother of Don Pedro,” betrayed Pedro during the war preceding the play: how and why is not clear. They have reconciled, but John is still bitter, so he dupes Pedro’s main man, Claudio, into thinking that his fiancé, Hero, has been unfaithful.

John faces social stigma and family conflict because of his illegitimate birth. To keep some dignity intact, he compensates with stubbornness. “I had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in his grace,” John says of his brother in a long monologue early in the play.

The Public Theater’s new historical backdrop alters Don John’s motivations, making him into a race traitor. He wears the uniform of a Black community advocate yet undermines the political cause of other Black Americans and deserts the (culture) war effort by the end of the play.

Now Pedro and his well-to-do friends belong to the Black bourgeoisie. John thus reads as a less successful Black man who resents their better fortune. He is a pariah outside the Black community because of his race, and within the Black community because of his illegitimate birth. Not welcome in white America; not welcome in Black America. He is alone, silenced—“trusted with a muzzle and enfranchised with a clog,” he says in his monologue, evoking images of slavery that speak to how Black Americans are still bound by those chains of discrimination today.

When a Black Don John says, “I have decreed not to sing in my cage,” he cannot help but allude to Paul Laurence Dunbar and Maya Angelou. These poets famously employ imagery of caged birds singing to symbolize the resilience of Black Americans in the face of brutal racism. John’s silence is resignation—annihilation by familial abandonment and societal violence. He is tired. He doesn’t have the strength to fight anymore.

Exhaustion and cynicism convince John that he has no place in any sphere of privilege. He decides that if he can’t have happiness in the Black community, then no one can. He drives Claudio away from Hero, and when he’s found out, he runs. Internal family conflict forces John to abandon the fight for Black justice that fires his heart.

That may make John sympathetic, but the Public’s multi-layered characterization also condemns a phenomenon known as “crab mentality.” If multiple crabs are trapped in a barrel and one tries to escape, the others break its legs to keep it from leaving. Similarly, a host of systemic barriers make it difficult for Black Americans to attain positions of wealth and influence, so when it happens, it is a rarity. Sometimes, when the successful few (like Pedro) encounter others (like John) who do not have such luck, the latter take the former down out of jealousy and frustration.

John’s fall from grace demonstrates how internalized racism contributes to the fear and cynicism that fuels the crab mentality. He, like many Black Americans, has become so accustomed to society working against him that in his mind, it is a law of nature. He believes that success is a fundamentally scarce resource for Black Americans, which implies that he must compete fiercely with other Black Americans to attain it. The result: he behaves destructively, harming his community and himself.

The Public Theater’s Much Ado emphasizes that Black Lives Matter is nothing without a solid sense of community. When intracommunal conflict drives freedom fighters apart, it pushes the whole movement backwards. Black Lives Matter means that All Black Lives Matter, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, disability status, or any other identifying factors. Prejudices in those areas must be unlearned to foster a community strong enough to overcome white supremacy.

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Charles Onesti, “From Physical War to Cultural War”

The Public’s Much Ado suggests the shifting nature of war in modernity, showing the physical warfare of Shakespeare’s time becoming the cultural warfare of our moment, which the characters are called back to at the end of the Public’s production.

In the late 16th century, when Much Ado About Nothing was first performed, the people of England were very familiar with war. On either side of the fight were kingdoms, duchies, or nations. Motives for war ranged from territory and religion to personal feuds. They were carried out in pitched battles. Men fought until they died or retreated.

In these modern culture wars, there are still times of peace during which the joys of romance, family, and comedy are possible.

Shakespearean plays like Richard III, Othello, and Macbeth show the tragedies of war. In Much Ado About Nothing, however, return from war creates the possibility of comedy. The play starts with soldiers transitioning into citizens. Behind the peacetime romances of the main plot, the specter of war looms in the quiet presence of Don John. But characters in the Public’s Much Ado are fighting a different kind of war.

Starting in the early 20th century, the idea of culture war emerged to represent the political conflicts of progressivism and conservatism in industrialized nations like the United States. The war in the Public’s Much Ado is one for Black justice.

Despite looking like military soldiers—full uniform, armed with daggers, marching onstage with “Left, Right, Left, Right on Left”—they carry protest signs and sing songs about forgiveness. Their war is not for territory but for their civil rights. Their weapons are peaceful demonstration and democratic vote. Their enemies are not rival nation-states but opposing ideologies.

In these modern culture wars, there are still times of peace during which the joys of romance, family, and comedy are possible. But then another event calls the soldiers back into battle—like the murder of George Floyd, or the sirens that interrupt the end of the Public’s Much Ado.

The end of the play is usually one of Shakespeare’s most optimistic endings. Hero and Claudio wed. The Public’s Hero gives a good slap to her doesn’t-deserve-her groom. Beatrice and Benedick get over themselves, and admit they love each other. They dance—“Slide to the left, / Slide to the right, / Now back it up twice, / Twirl that thang around.” The audience is ready to leave happy with life.

But the Public adds a tragic coda. Sirens sound. “Formation!” orders Don Pedro. The soldiers grab their picket signs and get in line. “Left, Right, Left, Right on Left”: they march off stage back into battle. A gospel hymn from the lovers left behind mourns their return to the war. “Only love,” Brooks solos, “Can conquer hate.” She breaks the fourth wall to ask the audience, “What’s going on?”

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Adapting the wartime frame for Shakespeare’s romantic comedy, the Public’s Much Ado envisions the modern “cultural warfare” between Black Lives Matter advocates and a militarized police force waging the violent physical war of premodern times. Having to fight these battles pulls Black Americans away from their families, their loves, their homes—tragedy intruding upon comedy.

Arsh Dhillon, Phillip Michalak, Bernadette Looney, Sonia Kangaju, and Charles Onesti
Arsh Dhillon, Phillip Michalak, Bernadette Looney, Sonia Kangaju, and Charles Onesti
During runs or stationary biking, Arsh Dhillon sometimes spends hours thinking about the women in Shakespeare’s plays, and how they would fare better under a feminist playwright and director. She’s already outlining the scripts.

Although Phillip Michalak gives off Prospero vibes, as he is often being transported and rapt in secret studies of Mathematics, he would choose Mercutio if given the chance to play any canonical Shakespearean character. What can he say? A good laugh is the best part of any day.

While on campus, Bernadette Looney could be found watching productions such as H.M.S. Pinafore with her good friend in theater who may or may not convince Bernadette to get involved with a play one day.

Sonia Kangaju has been performing in plays and musicals since she was in eighth grade. She also writes plays in her downtime and dreams of being a director.

Charles Onesti is a second year Computer Science student at Harvard with an interest in Sports, Philosophy, and of course, Shakespearean drama and poetry.





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