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‘The Piano Lesson’ is a Striking Revival That Delivers Exceptional Acting, Acute Direction and Prodigious Mastery

Danielle Brooks in 'The Piano Lesson' (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
Danielle Brooks in The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

How do we reconcile a past of misery, torment and devastation? Do we bury it or embrace the goodness our ancestors brought to bear as they raised us? Do we take the next steps to rise up to the inner glory they encouraged, or mourn in resentment never exorcising the anguish that seeped into our psyches? In August Wilson’s richly crafted Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Piano Lesson, currently running at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, the character Berniece (superbly portrayed by Danielle Brooks) must reconcile herself to her past and become the conduit that translates legacy into new beginnings for her family and her daughter.

The Piano Lesson symbolizes how African Americans must approach their painful history of slavery as a planting field which may give birth to strong generations that carry new hope and opportunity for a positive future. Additionally, in this production directed by Latanya Richardson Jackson, Wilson suggests what that future might be with an uplifting conclusion where family understanding and unity are restored after nefarious forces steeped in colonial, paternalistic folkways and institutional racism, sought to keep the family divided and conquered.

John David Washington in 'The Piano Lesson' (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
John David Washington in The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

August Wilson’s play debuted on Broadway in 1990, not only winning the Pulitzer Prize but also winning the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, as well as the New York Critic’s Circle Award for Best Play. The Piano Lesson which takes place in Pittsburgh, 1936 is one in a collection of 10 plays in Wilson’s American Century Cycle. Each of the plays, set in a different decade, chronicles African American struggles and triumphs as various families move away from the remnants of slavery and its impact from 1900 through the 1990s. The work has enjoyed three revivals, one Off Broadway in 2013 and the two Broadway outings (1990, 2022).

This outstanding revival features seminal performances by a superb ensemble and a clarifying vision about the play by the director. Each actor brings vitality and authentically to manifest the roiling fear and oppression that still hangs over the lives of characters Berniece (Danielle Brooks) Boy Willie (John David Washington) and family uncles Doaker (Samuel L. Jackson) and Wining Boy (Michael Potts) as they attempt to move beyond their traumatic past. It is a slavery past where ancestors saw toil and heartache and a recent past where Berniece and her family saw violence, bloodshed and anything but a peaceful passing to ancestral graves.

(L to R): Michael Potts, Samuel L. Jackson in The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Events come to a head when Boy Willie visits the family for the first time in three years since Berniece lost her husband Crawley. Boy Willie comes with a vital personal mission so he braves his sister Berniece’s ire because he is at a turning point in his life. Berniece and Boy Willie have been estranged because she blames him for Crawley’s death. Tired of sharecropping for others, Boy Willie leaps when he is offered an opportunity where he, too, can embrace the “American Dream.” In an ironic twist he would be purchasing land his ancestors worked as slaves made available after the slave master’s descendant, the head of the Sutter family, fell down a well and died. Boy Willie’s purchase would allow him to end being exploited by others so he might work to lift himself to a better life.

However, he needs to raise more cash to complete the land deal, so he intends to sell their family heirloom, a beautifully carved upright piano which is housed in Uncle Doaker’s Pittsburgh home where Berniece and her 11-year-old daughter live. As is often the case with inheritances, there are family squabbles about how to dispose of various items. The piano not only is valuable materially, it symbolizes the family’s history and legacy, which is both beautiful and terrible. An ancestor carved the faces of family members on it to soothe the slave master’s wife who was missing her slaves that were traded for the piano. Over the years, the piano has become the family totem that conveys a spiritual weight and emblematic preciousness. Wilson signifies this when Boy Willie and friend Lymon find it nearly impossible to lift by themselves.

Berniece understands the piano’s significance to the depths of her soul and refuses to allow Boy Willie to remove it. For seven years after their mother died, Berniece stopped playing it to honor her mother’s remembrance. Though only Maretha (played by Jurnee Swan at the performance I saw) and Uncle Wining Boy play it, Berniece justifies keeping it because of Mama Ola Charles. Mama Ola daily polished it “til her hands bled, then rubbed the blood in…mixed it up with the rest of the blood on it” and mourned over the tragic loss of her husband, Boy Charles who was murdered after he stole it and hid it to retain its ownership. He believed if the Sutter family kept the piano, they symbolically “lorded” it over the Charles family, who they would oppress as their ersatz slaves, if not physically, then psychically and emotionally.

Samuel L. Jackson in The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
Samuel L. Jackson in The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Gradually, Samuel L. Jackson’s Doaker reveals the story of the piano’s history since slavery days. With understated reverence as an explanation why Berniece will never let it go, he discusses how the carvings of each ancestor and their stories reside there as a remembrance of their identity and the sacrificial death of his brother Boy Charles, who first imbued the piano with the symbolic and spiritual significance of their family’s legacy of forward momentum.

Jackson’s Doaker and Danielle Brooks’ Berniece superbly translate the importance of this magical object with nuance and power that gives rise to our understanding why the ancestral spirits are hovering in the piano’s majesty in a battle that becomes otherworldly between the Sutter and the Charles family. It is a battle which has been continuing revealed at the top of the play with Boy Willie’s excited, impassioned entrance and reflected in Beowulf Boritt’s incredible set of Doaker’s simple four room house whose spare roof timbers exposed to the sky appear to be split and separating.

Indeed, the Charles family is a house divided by disagreement, disharmony and mourning tied in and caused by the racial discrimination, and inequitable economic opportunities intended to keep African Americans entrenched in poverty and peonage. To be free of Sutter oppression the Charles family must move away from the Sutters’ (symbolic of white racists) murderous, thieving behaviors, exploitive folkways and lack of empathy for others. They must free themselves from materialism, selfishness and criminality that has destroyed their humanity, as Brook’s Berniece expresses in her indictment of the men in her immediate family, including her dead husband Crawley.

 The cast of The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
The cast of The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Boy Willie’s presence at this point in time after Sutter is found at the bottom of a well is intriguing. Has Sutter’s wicked ghost driven him up to trouble Berniece about the piano despite its legacy? Or does he just want to make a better life for himself as he suggests? Berniece believes he pushed Sutter to his death, knowing the Sutter land would be put up for sale. Though Washington’s Boy Willie makes a convincing argument that he is not a murderer and Pott’s colorful Wining Boy suggests it’s the vengeful “Ghosts of the Yellow Dog” that caused Sutter’s fall to his death, Berniece is not convinced. Boy Willie’s presence has brought confusion and turmoil, exceptionally rendered by Washington’s Boy Willie, who appears so impassioned about selling the piano, he acts like a man possessed.

Additionally, Boy Willie’s obviation of the importance of the piano as their family legacy is answered with his apology to Berniece as if that is enough because he will sell it regardless. That answer isn’t enough for her. However, Boy Willie insists forcefully almost manically that he will use the land and make something with it, even though the deal is by word of mouth and could be another bamboozle by the Sutter family as Uncle Wining Boy suggests.

Danielle Brooks in The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
Danielle Brooks in The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

That the ghost of Sutter appears to members of the family around the same time that Boy Willie appears is more than a coincidence. That Boy Willie is the only one who doesn’t see the ghost is also more than a coincidence. Berniece, Doaker, Maretha and Wining Boy see the ghost who has been manifesting on the second floor above where Boritt’s roof timbers separate, threatening with well-paced grinding sounds (Scott Lehrer) to split the house up and fragment it completely.

Why doesn’t Boy Willie see Sutter’s ghost? Has Boy Willie become an instrument of the Sutter family, influenced/possessed by Sutter’s ghost to continue the tradition of theft, exploitation and bloodshed (the chains of slavery days) luring Boy Willie with the dream of being “his own boss?” The longer Boy Willie stays to sell a truck load of watermelons, the more the arguing and airing of grievances continues, intermingled with wonderful songs they sing, the first led by Jackson’s Doaker and the last by Potts’ Wining Boy who made a profitable living which he couldn’t sustain playing piano and cutting a few records.

However, nothing will ameliorate Boy Willie’s lust for the money the piano will bring. Finally, when push comes to shove, Berniece and Doaker do take out their guns ready to shoot Boy Willie if he and his friend Lymon (Doron JePaul Mitchell when I saw the show) remove the piano.

Samuel L. Jackson in The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Brooks’ Berniece is so fervent that we believe she will shoot her brother to protect her ancestors’ legacy whose symbolism and spiritual strength she has embraced during Boy Willie’s importuning her to give it up. Washington’s Boy Willie is every inch her equal, stoked by the Sutter relative with the lure of land and his own ambition, like the Biblical Esau, willing to sell his birthright without any guarantees. Brooks and Washington are perfect foils and deliver amazing performances. Jackson’s Doaker and Pott’s Uncle Wining Boy present the stabilizing, humorous counterbalance to the frenzied brother and sister. If not for Wining Boy’s playing the piano at that heightened moment when Berniece has the gun, she would shoot Boy Willie, and Sutter’s ghost would have triumphed, completely destroying the family. Jackson’s direction and the timing of Potts and Samuel L. Jackson’s interference and distractions round out the incredible drama that moves toward the last scene of the play.

It is then that all the characters acknowledge the ghost of Sutter’s presence in the grinding sound of the house being pulled asunder by the warring spirits which also represent the values which the families prize. These are the values which Boy Willie must decide on. Should he be like the Sutters or raise up his own family’s legacy as Doaker has learned to do as a trainman and as Berniece has done steadfastly living one day at a time? Does Boy Willie have the resolve to shake off destructive forces and slowly carve out a life for himself with a lasting peace? At the top of the play Washington’s Boy Willie is so possessed by the Sutter’s offer and righting the past exploitation of his family, he can’t wait to follow them down the same pathways. However, Washington’s Boy Willie does change and is redirected.

(Forefront): Samuel L. Jackson, (Background) John David Washington in 'The Piano Lesson' (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
(Forefront): Samuel L. Jackson, (Background) John David Washington in The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Encouraged by everyone who feels the presence of Sutter’s ghost, preacher Avery (Trai Byers-another superb performance) who Berniece has been seeing, attempts to cast out the pernicious Sutter. He fails. Only Berniece calling on the help of her ancestors’ spirits who assist in the spiritual battle overcomes the ghost of Sutter’s presence and hold over their family. As she sings and plays the piano, on the second floor we watch the impact of her prayers and the Charles family’s spirits on Boy Willie as Washington manifests the struggle with Sutter’s ghost. As his body arches over then releases, we note that Sutter’s ghost, its tormenting lures that possessed Boy Willie leave. The two siblings are finally in agreement with Doaker and Wining Boy that what Sutter represents has no place in their family. As it leaves Boy Willie, miraculously, the house is made whole. With a grinding sound and the final sighting and restitution of the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog (you have to see the play to understand what happens) the separated timbers rejoin. It’s an incredible effect and magnificent, symbolic realization of Wilson’s immutable themes, about family unity in reconciliation with the past to move forward, thanks to the creative team, wonderful actors and Jackson’s direction.

Jackson’s staging and use of special effects (Jeff’s Sugg’s projection design, Lehrer’s sound design, Japhy Weideman’s lighting design, Boritt’s fabulous set) convey Boy Willie’s struggle, exorcism and redemption from the tradition of oppression, bloodshed and materialistic selfishness that have corrupted the Sutters and work to corrupt him and completely divide his family. He is only able to gain strength to be released when Brooks’ Berniece accepts how the legacy of past can be turned into a positive future by becoming the conduit of the ancestral spirits. It is their beauty, sanctity and strength that rise up to lead her, Maretha and the others forward, if they allow themselves to be led.

Boy Willie and Berniece join hands in unity. His demeanor transforms into calmness. He no longer wants to sell the piano, understanding that his family history and his identity are in unity. With the house returned to wholeness, the wicked impulses will no more occlude the lives of Berniece, Boy Willie and the others. Now they can move forward and carve their own history in the reality of their lives.

Throughout Wilson raises questions whether Boy Willie got revenge on Sutter for having his father burned alive and the question of whether he killed him to get the land in an ironic triumph. Another question is whether the Sutters are serious about selling the land to Boy Willie given the history between the two families. In the production these questions are emphasized by director Jackson’s vision of the themes and characterizations of this complicated work brought to a phenomenal apotheosis at the conclusion. However, as in life, ambuity is the spice that keeps us enthralled along with the chilling presence of the supernatural hovering.

This is a one of a kind production that exceptionally realizes August Wilson’s intent with every fiber of the artists’ prodigious efforts. I have nothing but praise for what they have done and will do for the run of the play.

For tickets and times to see this living masterpiece go to their website: https://pianolessonplay.com/

‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ Directed by Kenny Leon, Powerful Messages for an America in Crisis

Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare in the Park, William Shakespeare, Kenny Leon Danielle Brooks, Margaret Odette, Chuck Cooper, Granthan Coleman, Jeremie Harris Billy Eugene Jones

The ensemble in William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Kenny Leon, Shakespeare in the Park, Public Theater (Joan Marcus)

From Emilio Sosa’s vibrant costumes to Beowulf Boritt’s impeccable set design (a landscape of roses, luscious, ripe-for-the-plucking peaches on the Georgia peach tree, the luxuriant front lawn, the Georgian-styled, two-story mansion-representative of an orderly, harmonious, idyllic world), this update of Much Ado About Nothing resonates as an abiding Shakespearean classic. Director Kenny Leon’s vision for the comedy with threads of tragedy evokes a one-of-a-kind production with currency and moment. This is especially so as we challenge the noxious onslaught of Trumpism’s war on democratic principles, our constitution and the rule of law.

Directed with a studied reverence for eternal verities, Leon, with the help of his talented ensemble, carves out valuable takeaways. They focus on key elements that gem-like, reflect beauty and truth in Shakespeare’s characterizations, conflicts and themes. By the conclusion of the profound, spectacular evening of delight, of sorrow, and of laughter, we are uplifted. As we walk out into a shadowy Central Park, our minds and hearts have been inspired to shutter fear and cloak our souls against siren calls that would lure us from reason into irrational insentience and hatred.

Grantham Coleman, Hubert Point-Du Jour, ensemble, Much Ado About Nohting, William Shakespeare, Shakespeare in the Park, Public Theatre, Kenny Leon

Grantham Coleman (foreground) Hubert Point-Du Jour, ensemble, William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Kenny Leon, Shakespeare in the Park, Public Theater (Joan Marcus)

Kenny Leon has chosen for his setting a wealthy black neighborhood of Atlanta, Georgia, whose Lord of the realm, Leonato (Chuck Cooper’s prodigious, comedic and stentorian acting talents are on full display), shows his political persuasion with prominent signs on the front and side of his house that read, “Stacey Abrams 2020.” The  impressive “Georgian-style” mansion which could be out of East Egg, the upper class setting of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is ironic with the addition of its advocating support for Abrams.

With this particular set piece, we note Leon’s comment on black progress toward a sustained economic prosperity amidst a backdrop of oppression, if one considers the chicanery that happened during Abrams’ run for the 2018 gubernatorial election. It also is reminiscent of the house of the racist, misogynistic villain of Gatsby, the arrogant, presumptuous Tom Buchannan and other such elites (i.e. wealthy conservatives), who give no thought to destroying “people and things” of the underclasses with their policies. Yet Lord Leonato and his friends and relatives are not turned away from justice and empathy for others. This, the director highlights through this Shakespearean update, whose characters seek justice and truth and encourage each other to abide in kindness, love and forgiveness.

(L to R): Tiffany Denise Hobbs,Danielle Brooks (R)Kenny Leon, Much Ado About Nothing, Kenny Leon, Shakespeare in the Park, Public Theater, Delacorte Theater

(L to R): Margaret Odette, Tiffany Denise Hobbs, OLivia Washington, Danielle Brooks William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Kenny Leon, Shakespeare in the Park, Public Theater (Joan Marcus)

Leon approaches his vision of justice through love by weaving in songs and music. At the outset Leon incorporates such music with a refrain sung by Beatrice (the inimitable Danielle Brooks):

“Mother, mother, there’s too many of you crying, brother, brother, brother, there’s far too many of you dying. You know we’ve got to find a way to bring some lovin’ here today.”

As Beatrice finishes the refrain by asking “What’s happening?” her ensemble of friends which include Hero (Margaret Odette), Margaret (Olivia Washington), and Ursula (Tiffany Denise Hobbs), sing the patriotic ballad “America the Beautiful” as a prayer and inspiration for the country to follow its ideals of “brotherhood from sea to shining sea.” This is not a war-like unction, it a solicitation for peace and goodness. Clearly, the women importune God to “shed His grace” on America. One infers their feeling as an imperative for political and social change hoped for, in a true democracy which can guarantee economic equality and justice.

The arrangement of “America the Beautiful” is lyrical and soulfully harmonious. As the women sing this anointed version they transform the text from hackneyed cliche, long abandoned by politicos and wealthy Federalist Society adherents, and uplift it with profound meaning. They encourage us toward authentically pursuing justice, brotherhood and unity in love and grace, elements which are sorely tried during the central focus of Much Ado About Nothing, during Hero’s unjust slander and infamy until she receives vindication.

Chuck Cooper, Erik Laray Harvey, Shakespeare in the Park, Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare, Kenny Leon, Delacorte Theater

(L to R): Chuck Cooper, Erik Laray Harvey in Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare, directed by Kenny Leon, Shakespeare in the Park, The Delacorte Theater, Public Theater (Joan Marcus)

After the women finish singing, the men march in from the wars. Instead of arms, they carry protest signs decrying hate, uplifting love, proclaiming the right of democracy. Instead of a warlike manner they are calm. The theme of justice and the imperative for political and social brotherhood prayed for in the previous song is reaffirmed as we understand what the “soldiers” are fighting for. In Leon’s genius it is a spiritual warfare, a battle for the soul of American democracy. Leonato appreciates their endeavors and invites them to stay with him for one month to be refreshed and gain strength before they go back out for another skirmish against the forces of darkness.

The music and songs composed by Jason Michael Webb strategically unfold throughout the development of the primary love story between Leonato’s daughter, Hero (the superb Margaret Odette) and family friend Claudio (the excellent Jeremie Harris). And they follow to the conclusion with the funeral and redemption of Hero and her final marriage and dual wedding celebrations with the parallel love story between Beatrice and Benedick. The songs not only illustrate and solidify the themes of love, forgiveness, and the seasons of life, “a time for joy, a time for sorrow,” they unify the friends and family with hope and happiness through dancing and merriment. The melding of the music organically in the various scenes throughout the production is evocative, seamless and just grand.

Margaret Odette, Jeremie Harris, Billy Eugene Jones, Chuck Cooper in William Shakespeare's 'Much Ado About Nothing, Kenny Leon, Shakespeare in the Park, Public Theater

(L to R): Margaret Odette, Jeremie Harris, Billy Eugene Jones, Chuck Cooper in William Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ directed by Kenny Leon, Shakespeare in the Park (Joan Marcus)

After the men arrive from their protest, the director cleverly switches gears and the tone moves to one of playful humor and exuberance. With expert comic timing, Brooks’ Beatrice wags about Benedick in a war of sage wits and words. Coleman’s Benedick quips back to her with equal ferocity that belies both potentially have romantic feelings but must circle each other like well-matched competitors enjoying their “war” games as sport. They offer up the perfect foils to a plot their friends later devise using rumor to get Beatrice and Benedick to fall in love with each other in a twisted mix up that is hysterical in its revelations of human pride and ego.

The relationship between Beatrice (the marvelous Danielle Brooks) and Benedick (Grantham Coleman is her equally marvelous suitor and sparring partner) is portrayed with brilliance. The couple serves their delicious comedic fare with great good will and extraordinary fun. Their portrayals provide ballast and drive much of the forward action in the delightful plot events.  Danielle Brooks gives a wondrously funny, soulfully witty portrayal. As Benedick, Grantham Coleman is Brooks’ partner in spontaneity, LOL humor, inventiveness and shimmering acuity.

Danielle Brooks, Olivia Washington, Erik Laray Harvey, Chuck Cooper, Tiffany Denise Hobbs, Margaret OdetteWilliam Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, Kenny Leon, Shakespeare in the Park, Public Theater

(L to R): Danielle Brooks, Olivia Washington, Erik Laray Harvey, Chuck Cooper, Tiffany Denise Hobbs, Margaret Odette, William Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ directed by Kenny Leon, Shakespeare in the Park, Public Theater (Joan Marcus)

Various interludes in Act I are also a time for male banter about the ladies Hero and Beatrice and the love match with Hero that friend of the family Don Pedro (Billy Eugene Jones) effects for his friend Claudio (Jeremie Harris). The scene between Benedick, Claudio and Don Pedro is superbly wrought with Benedick’s insistence he will remain a bachelor. The audience knows he “doth protest too much” for himself and for Claudio. The pacing of their taunts and jests is expertly rendered. The three actors draw out every bit of humor in Shakespeare’s characterizations.

Into this beauteous garden of delight, exuberance and order creeps the snake Don John (Hubert Point-Du Jour), brother of Don Pedro, and his confidante and friend Conrade (Khiry Walker). Though they support the fight for democracy, Don John is engaged in sub rosa familial warfare. We move from the macrocosm to the microcosm of the human heart which can be a place of extreme wickedness as it is with Don John who quarreled with his brother Don Pedro, his elder and does not forgive him. Don Pedro extended forgiveness and grace to Don John, which Don John feels forced to accept though he is not happy about it. Indeed, he is filled with rancor and seeks revenge, to abuse his brother and anyone near him, if the opportunity presents itself which it does.

Danielle Brooks, Grantham Coleman, William Shakespeare, Much Ado about Nothing, Kenny Leon, Shakespeare in the Park

(L to R): Danielle Brooks, Grantham Coleman in William Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ directed by Kenny Leon, Shakespeare in the Park (Joan Marcus)

The conversation between Conrade and Don John is intriguing for what Shakespeare’s characterizations reveal about the human condition, forgiveness and remorse. Indeed, Don John is reprobate. Whether out of jealousy or the thought that he has done no wrong, he feels bullied to accept his brother’s public forgiveness. The theme “grace bestowed is not grace received unless there is true remorse,” is an important message highlighted by this production through the character of evil Don John who eschews grace. Indeed, extending grace and forgiveness to such individuals is a waste of time. No wonder Don John would rather “be a canker in a hedge than a rose in his grace.”

Trusting Conrade, Don John admits he is a plain-dealing villain. When he learns of Claudio’s marriage, he plots revenge on Don Pedro by attacking his best friend and smearing Hero’s integrity and fidelity to Claudio. The jealous Claudio is skeptical, but later “proof” during a duplicitous arrangement with an unwitting Margaret, Claudio becomes convinced that Hero is an unfaithful, unchaste philistine.

Lateefah Holder, William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, Kenny Leon, Shakespeare in the Park

Lateefah Holder (center) and ensemble in William Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ directed by Kenny Leon, Shakespeare in the Park (Joan Marcus)

Claudio’s jealous behavior and immaturity believing Don John turns goodness into another wickedness as evil begets evil. As they stand at the alter Claudio excoriates Hero as an unfit whore to the entire wedding party. Hero, injured unjustly by Don John’s wicked lie and Claudio’s extreme cruelty, collapses. In a classic historical repetition, once again misogyny raises its ugly head and condemns the innocent Hero destroying her once good name. Benedick, the uncanny Friar and Leonato stand with Hero. This key turning point in the production is wrought with great clarity by the actors so that the injustice is believable and it is shocking as injustice always is.

Thankfully, The Friar’s (a fine Tyrone Mitchell Henderson) suggestion to return Hero to grace and redemption in Claudio’s eyes by proclaiming her death to bring her again to a new life is effected with power. Finally, we appreciate a cleric who bestows love not condemnation or a rush to judgment! The emotional tenor of the scene is in perfect balance. Odette and Harris are heartfelt as is Cooper’s Leonato. The scene works in shifting the comedy to tragedy and of uplifting lies believed in as facts with wickedness overcoming love and light. Once again we are reminded that Shakespeare’s greatness is in his timelessness; that if allowed the opportunity for vengeance and evil, humanity will corruptly, wickedly use lies cast as facts to dupe and deceive the gullible, in this case Claudio.

Grantham Coleman, Jeremie Harris, Margaret Odette, Danielle Brooks in William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, Kenny Leon, Shakespeare in the Park

(L to R): Grantham Coleman, Jeremie Harris, Margaret Odette, Danielle Brooks (center) ensemble, in William Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ directed by Kenny Leon, Shakespeare in the Park (Joan Marcus)

I absolutely adore how the truth comes to light, through the lower classes represented by Dogberry (a hysterical Lateefah Holder) and her assistants who are witnesses to Don John’s accomplices to nefariousness. I also appreciate that all the villains in the work admit their wrongdoing; it is a marvel which doesn’t always occur the higher the ladder of power and ambition one ascends. But this is a comedy with tragic elements, thus, evil is turned to the light and Beatrice and Benedick the principle conveyors of humor are lightening strokes of genius which soothe us to patience until justice arrives right on time.

I also was thrilled to see that the remorseful, apologetic Claudio willingly accepts Hero’s recompense (Leon has Hero dog him in the face) as she unleashes her rage at his unjust treatment. These scenes of redemption and reconciliation ring with authenticity: Cooper, Odette and Harris shine.

The celebrations, masked dance, marriage between Hero and Claudio, Hero’s funeral and the final marriages are staged with exceptional interest and flow; they reveal that each in the ensemble is a key player in the action. The choreography by Camille A. Brown and the fight direction by Thomas Schall are standouts. Kudos also goes to those in the creative team not previously mentioned. Peter Kaczorowski’s gorgeous lighting design conveys romance and subtly of focus during the side scenes; Jessica Paz’s sound design is right on (I heard every word) and Mia Neal for the beautiful wigs, hair and makeup design receives my praise.

Leon’s Much Ado About Nothing is one for the ages. It leaves us with the men doing warfare for the soul of democracy leaving Leonato’s ordered world of right vs. wrong where the right prevails. Once again soldiers fight the good fight and go out to resist and stand against the world of “alternate facts” where chaos, anarchy, and the overthrown rule of law abide (at this point) with impunity. Leon counsels hope and humor; progress does happen, if slowly.

This production’s greatness is in how the director and cast extract immutable themes. These serve as a beacon to guide us through times that “try our souls,” and they encourage us to persist despite the dark impulses of money-driven power dynamics and fascist hegemony that would keep us enthralled.

I saw Much Ado About Nothing in a near downpour then fitful stop and start to continual light rain during which no one in the audience left. Despite this the actors were anointed, phenomenal! I would love to see this work again. I do hope it is recorded somewhere. It’s just wow. The show runs until June 23rd. You may luck out with tickets at their lottery. Go to their website by CLICKING HERE.

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