As You Like It | PlayMakers Repertory Company | Online, through Jan. 21 

It’s a picture of contentment as Duke Senior steps, satisfied, into the cool of a midsummer night for a smoke at the end of his day. The sounds of the crickets soothe the successful Black businessman surveying his domain as he strolls through a marble colonnade.

Then the peace of the evening is shattered. A gang with torches surrounds the duke; one brandishes a club, another, a rope. All are wearing hoods while they beat him up and drive him to his knees. As a white man pulls off a bull mask and cocks his shotgun, one thing saves the military hero’s life: a torn newspaper clip from a Tulsa, Oklahoma, newspaper, showing that he once saved the life of the man with the gun.

In a rough, midwestern accent, the assailant, Duke Frederick, bellows, “Get you from our court,” and Duke Senior flees for his life.

No, director Tia James hasn’t placed us in a 16th-century palace in the south of France in the prologue she’s devised as a new opening for As You Like It, a theatrical and motion picture hybrid that PlayMakers Repertory Company is touting as the troupe’s first film. This daring reframing of the Shakespearean play, streaming online through January 21, situates the tale uncomfortably closer to home: among people caught up in the Tulsa Race Massacre, one of the most horrific incidents of racial terrorism in American history.

On that day—May 31, 1921—deputized white mobs razed the houses, businesses, churches, and schools of Tulsa’s Greenwood district, an area known at the time as being a Black utopia and one of the most prosperous communities in the United States.

More than 300 residents were killed in the attack; thousands more were placed in internment camps and driven from their homes.

James was tapped to direct the work for PlayMakers in the summer of 2020—a momentous time to consider a production of Shakespeare in which Black actors are fully represented.

“It was the time of George Floyd, and I was in a pretty depressed and demoralized state,” the Black director recalls. “It was also the third time in my life that I’d heard about Tulsa. The other two times, older Black men would say, almost in passing, ‘Hey, you know there was a Black Wall Street, right?’”

“I’d never heard of it. And during that summer, when it came up again, I said ‘I have to look into this.’”

When James learned of that brilliant and prosperous community from the start of the 20th century, she found a bridge to bring Shakespeare’s world closer to our own. After the lands of Duke Senior (noble Samuel Ray Gates) are taken by the white, usurping Duke Frederick (an acerbic Jeffrey Blair Cornell), he and his people seek shelter in a forest in the countryside.

From that point forward, James’s adaptation, which reshuffles the scenes in the play’s second and third acts, focuses on the possibilities of healing, and even love, among a cast of characters that have suddenly been displaced.

AhDream Smith’s Rosalind, disguised as a confident cowboy, beguiles Khalil Gibran LeSaldo’s Orlando, who’s been banished by his warring brother Oliver (Anthony August), and comic Touchstone (Sergio Mauritz Ang) takes up with the rough-hewn Phoebe (Omolade Wey) before multiple weddings end the tale.

Noted regional musicians Yolanda Rabun and Emily Musolino create a soulful soundscape for the lyrics Shakespeare wrote in the original text, before exuberant song and dance sequences raise spirits in the second and last act.

“It’s so important, especially when telling Black stories, and it’s something I’ve wrestled with in my art: We see a lot of Black struggle, but for me, I want to see more Black joy,” James says. “We journey toward a more hopeful, adventurous place … to have those given circumstances root us in something really real.”

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