As much as A Midsummer Night’s Dream channels the whimsy and mutability of spring, and Macbeth recalls the moody October hallows and haunts of fall, and The Winter’s Tale recalls, well, winter, Much Ado about Nothing feels to me like the days of early summer—breezy, joyous and romantic, with the promise of even sunnier days to come. It’s a perfect fit, then, for a production among the grand greenery of Central Park, as part of the Public Theater’s annual Shakespeare in the Park season.
Though the Delacorte has seen a few previous stagings of the play—most recently in 2014—this one, directed by Kenny Leon, is the first with an all-black cast. It’s a refreshing choice to witness, as the production seats itself in a vision of contemporary upper-class black life. Scenic designer Beowulf Boritt renders a green and welcoming yard, where most of the action takes place, complete with a towering, two-story brick house. “Stacey Abrams 2020” banners hang just below the second-story balcony, nodding toward the new setting of this production—Atlanta, in the near future. Among luscious rose bushes, manicured grass, and a white picket fence in the background, the set bows with elegance and stature, and the lighting, designed by Peter Kaczorowski, peeking from the house’s sheer-curtained windows, is as romantic as befits the play’s themes.
There’s plenty to savor in the cast too. Danielle Brooks, of course, is the center of this production’s star appeal. Best known as the lovable inmate Taystee on Orange is the New Black and as a Tony nominee for her Broadway debut in The Color Purple delivers on the promise of her casting. Hers is a lively, head-snapping Beatrice with no small touch of brilliance; she’s not bitter but simply wounded, and a bit hardened, by her love. She has a capacity for a full range of moods, all of which Brooks broadcasts with every facial muscle, popping her eyebrows up, widening her eyes out, twisting her mouth down and to the side in displeasure. Brooks is also game for broad comedy, and it suits her effervescent energy as she takes a tumble onstage or runs through the stands, mildly harassing some audience members along the way. Her playfulness is hearty and infectious. Grantham Coleman provides more than a worthy comic match with his Benedick. Coleman unabashedly plays for the cheap seats with his physical humor, crawling around on the stage, dancing as he hides behind a bush in the yard, and suddenly dropping to pump a few push-ups to impress Beatrice. Margaret Odette, too, is lovely as Hero, a thankless role as written, one with sparse lines and little personality. Still, Odette gushes with love’s promise and breaks down and rages with its denial, imbuing Hero with her color, depth, and sincerity in a wonderfully earnest performance. Jeremie Harris’s Claudio is appropriately boyish and naive, though Harris’s performance is occasionally uneven, as he struggles to navigate all of the tricky emotional turns of his character.
A number of the other actors err in the direction of overbaked performances: Chuck Cooper’s performance as Leonato, marked by the pronounced stateliness and steady intonations of a more classical take, is ill-matched to the more flexible, modern performances around him. Hubert Point du Jour and Jaime Lincoln Smith, as Don John and Borachio, are either too arch or not arch enough. The watchmen, too, unfortunately miss some beats: Lateefah Holder’s genderbent Dogberry isn’t as foolish as she’d have us believe and Erik Laray Harvey’s Verges seems not so much idiotic as developmentally challenged, making the clowning performance not just unfunny, but also offensive.
The ensemble can’t be forgotten in this production, however, because in the brief dance interludes, the dancers (Lawanda Harris, William Roberson, Latra A. Wilson) and the choreography (Camille A. Brown) kick aside some of the production’s flaws, embodying the charm and jovaility that the play holds at its core. The costume design, too, by Emilio Sosa, dances from sleek and slinky social wear to formal suits and elegant dresses to hip street wear like denim shorts, cold-shoulder tops, and platform sneakers. But, for all of the show’s unbounded liveliness, there are sudden interjections of somber songs featuring soloists from the ensemble. Though the vocals are polished and pleasurable to hear, they milk the drama at the expense of the comedy. The turns are too sudden, so much so that the shifts are palpable, and even those on stage take a beat to try to steer the bends on the ride without getting whiplash.
The problem is larger than one or two tragically out-of-place numbers; this Much Ado bears upon its back the weight of a capital-M-Message, begging a question that comes up in so many instances of dramatic artwork drawn from a black perspective: Can black joy be enough? So much of the production, by design of the play itself, is marked by frivolity and love and joy, and the inclusion of an all-black cast, playing characters positioned in the stratum of upper-class life, already feels political simply by nature of that choice. But the production pushes beyond that, grasping at the theme of peace in a world at war.
Brooks opens and closes the play with a charging rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” and the ending is abruptly interrupted by a call to war and a march of protestors carrying signs with vague anti-hate messages. What this production seems to forget, however, is that Gaye’s famous song was in response to the Vietnam War—that political statements are insubstantial without context, something this Much Ado lacks.
In a Playbill article on the play, Leon is quoted as saying that the community in this production is “fighting for the values that Americans hold dear: the idea of democracy for everybody and respect for everybody, and all those values that people right now seem to be pushing against.” Though true, the statement is remarkably vague, and the direction follows. Of course, Much Ado‘s take on its skirmish is similarly vague in the original writing. We may assume that it, like all of the conflict in the play, is drawn from the “nothing” in the play’s title and is inconsequential; after all, even the play’s wrongdoers, including Don John, whose misdeeds range from everyday deceptions to rebellions, are forgiven or unpunished within the context of the play. But this production’s attempt to politicize itself in such general terms then results in an elision of its already politicized casting. The state of blackness in America can’t fit within the pithy message of a sign about peace, and to say “the idea of democracy for everybody and respect for everybody” is almost like saying “all lives matter” in a production that made the choice to represent a community whose members everyday see—and, historically, have seen—injustice and brutality that is exceptional to them.
Though Much Ado has so, so many moments of pure delight, this is the one manner in which it lets down itself and its audiences, of any race, in a way that’s larger than a take on a Marvin Gaye song. It could have been nothing but black joy, or black joy tempered by the reality of the issues that sparked protests like Black Lives Matter in the first place, but the middle ground—somewhere between joy and a broader context of blackness in America—just doesn’t quite do.