Blk Girls Luv the Bard: Love’s Labour’s Lost

Saturday, Aug. 15, 6:30 p.m.

When JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell proposed her latest project, “Blk Girls Luv the Bard”a series of virtual staged readings of Shakespeare cast exclusively with Black womenon social media, she had no trouble finding talent.

“I didn’t have to go looking,” says the noted producer/director, who founded Black Ops Theatre Company in 2015 and has worked with leading regional companies including Dartmouth College and Vermont’s Northern Stage as well as local groups like PlayMakers Repertory Company and Bulldog Ensemble Theater. “There are plenty of Black women to fill these roles. We’re just regularly not being sourced for them.”

In a community of practice where predominantly white directors still too often cannot picture actors of color in roles traditionally played by white performers—or women playing parts attributed to men—Black women frequently come into auditions with two strikes against them. That’s particularly the case in classical theater productions.

“In large ways, nationally and internationally, Black women are not represented in Shakespearean practice—not just in acting but administration and producing,” Holloway-Burrell says. “We’re just missing from the landscape.”

Holloway-Burrell adds to that landscape on Saturday evening with a production of Love’s Labour’s Lost. Play On Shakespeare, a national initiative dedicated to bringing the Bard to present-day audiences, has contributed funding to the show and will air the staged reading on its YouTube channel.

Holloway-Burrell first encountered Play On during her 2017 assistantship at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where the group began commissioning carefully crafted modern verse translations of all of Shakespeare’s 39 known works.

Since then, Holloway-Burrell has directed productions of Twelfth Night affiliated with the group at Shakespeare in Detroit and an off-Broadway festival last year. In choosing mostly women and writers of color to write adaptations, Play On has “challenged the history of who’s been invited to the table when working on Shakespeare,” according to associate creative director Taylor Bailey.

But that dynamic still needs change, according to Holloway-Burrell.

“So many Black women aspire to perform Shakespeare,” she says. “People are waving and saying ‘I’m interested,’ but we just have not been considered for the work.”

It wasn’t always thus. Before the abolition of slavery in New York in the early 1800s, actors including James Hewlett and Ira Aldridge performed Shakespeare at New York’s African Grove Theatre. But Sam White, founding artistic director of Shakespeare in Detroit and dramaturge for this weekend’s production, notes that during the 19th century, Shakespeare gradually became “this untouchable thing that was only for the elite.”

“He wasn’t a rich person; he didn’t come from a rich background,” White observes. “That would have been the opposite of what he wanted it to be.”

“[Shakespeare] was a popular-culture icon of his time, like today’s songwriters, writing for money, writing for the people,” Holloway-Burrell says. “But gatekeepers who have always felt very strongly about who Shakespeare belongs to have kept him cloistered and academic.”

For Black people denied social, economic, and educational resources, he “becomes inherently inaccessible,” Holloway-Burrell says. She cites Play On’s efforts to “change the algorithm and make Shakespeare’s more accessible to the modern ear” as crucial to removing the barricade of language without compromising the work’s integrity.

According to Bailey, in most Play On translations, more than 80 percent of Shakespeare’s words remain unchanged. Editing primarily involves “going through and making little chiropractic adjustments,” Bailey says, finding replacements for individual words, phrases, or metaphors that have fallen out of regular use since Shakespeare’s day.

Saturday’s production features the meticulous, line-by-line adaptation of Love’s Labour’s Lost that Play On commissioned from Josh Wilder, a rising queer Black playwright who’s worked at Kennedy Center, Yale School of Drama, and the Sundance Institute.

“Wilder has such a light touch,” White says. “It’s still Shakespeare’s house, but Mr. Wilder has left the door open for us—and put a blueberry pie in the oven.”

Just as crucial to Holloway-Burrell are initiatives that attempt to center Black women in Shakespeare.

“Black women have the potential to bring something unmatched to Shakespeare,” she says. “There’s a certain way Black women have to navigate the world—in code-shifting and the performance of their everyday lives—that is already built into Shakespeare’s characters. There’s a wide breadth of experience and understanding of the world and people—what it means to care for people, to hold trauma, and to continue to persevere and push forward that Black women just inherently encompass.”

But the director is adamant that that work occurs on her own terms.

“We’re not trying to use these plays to figure out how we as Black people sit inside this work, to ‘find our humanity’ through this white playwright, and to prove our worthiness as artists in the American theater,” she says. “It’s far more important for us to define our own agency and to play and investigate remarkable language, insightful stories and worlds that have inspired artists long denied the opportunities to perform them. Shakespeare’s work belongs to all.”

Correction: JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell has worked at Dartmouth College, not Barrington Stage, as the piece originally stated.

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