Preview: Rude Mechanicals’ ‘Shakespeare Is A White Supremacist’ takes original, racial twist on the Bard
Devised piece tackles issues of race, active allyship
It’s Tuesday, Dec. 5, and MGC 4 has been transformed into a performance space by Rude Mechanicals. As tech rehearsal begins, flowers are scattered across the floor, seven chairs are in a circle and actress Cat Ashley sits center stage. The other actors enter the space one by one, and eventually they all come together to do warmups, in front of the audience. They transition into the first scene, in an audition room, and at first it seems like it’s just another audition. But it soon becomes clear that this isn’t an audition, rehearsal process or performance like any other, just like the development of the show itself. This is “Shakespeare Is A White Supremacist.”
“Shakespeare Is A White Supremacist” is an originally devised piece developed by Artistic Director Andrew Watring and the cast. The story follows the experiences of people of color (Cheren Alvarado, Cat Ashley, Fabiola Lizardi Clemente, Saira Grewal and Nathan Kundrat), a white actress (Hannah Ruth Wellons) and a white director (Ben Feder) as they audition for, rehearse and perform a production of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” It is comprised, mostly, of difficult conversations about race, racism and identity in theatre, and raises questions about sociopolitical issues within performing arts communities today, such as color blind and color-conscious casting.
According to Rude Mechanicals’ Executive Director Elizabeth Morton, “SWS” is a new venture for the group because it is entirely written by Watring and the cast.
“We’ve never done a completely new and original work,” Morton said. “Hopefully audiences will come in with an open mind, allow themselves to sink into discomfort of the show and learn from that discomfort.”
In mounting this show, Rude Mechanicals aimed to give voice to people of color within the world of classical theatre, not just the white playwrights of the classics, Watring said. Watring was first inspired to create this piece last spring, after watching University alum Manna Middlebrooks’ one-woman show, “Something About Being Invisible.” During the performance, Middlebrooks spoke directly to the audience and asked Watring: “what are you doing for people of color on campus?”
Watring’s gut response? “Not enough.”
Watring was in the middle of season selection for Rude Mechanicals at that point and changed the process for proposing shows, allowing people to propose shows without selecting a director. Watring proposed an experimental piece using the life experiences of people of color on campus. From there, it bloomed into Watring writing and directing the piece with an experimental and physical style.
Now that the show is a reality and opens Thursday, it is a culmination of a rewarding process.
“I’ve become the director I’ve always wanted to be,” Watring said. “I’m doing the work I want to do. The longer the process was, the more I got to the space of ‘this is what I want’ and ‘this is what I want to say.”
One aspect of the show and its process that sets it apart is its dynamic, ensemble-based cast. For the first two weeks, they did connection exercises, engaged in deep conversations and got to know each other before blocking the show.
This particular cast and rehearsal process has been a special one, according to College of Arts and Sciences junior Saira Grewal, who plays Katherine.
“This cast is unique because it is so small and we spend so much time on exercises,” Grewal said. “It’s not something you get in a normal rehearsal process, and it allowed us to be comfortable with each other and brought out special and unique moments as we were working on the script and scenes being blocked.”
During one particular movement exercise on the Saturday before opening night, Watring had the cast perform 20 items on a list, such as having everyone sit in circle, for four hours straight. By the end of it, they created an amazing piece with a color line, a rope and a hand pose.
“All of this was incorporated into show and showed how much they were willing to collaborate,” Watring said. “The majority of the show’s most powerful moments came from these exercises. It showed the vulnerability and raw talent of the cast.”
Grewal said that her original role developed as a result of many group discussions, and although there is a distinct separation between actors and their roles, the show includes many stories that are real.
“It includes very honest but personal anecdotes woven in that make it extra personal,” she said. “If you go to AU or are in the DPA [Department of Performing Arts], you’ll recognize certain things.”
She also noted how this process has changed her as a performer, as it was her first straight play.
“It pushed me as an actor to act without the crutch of song and dance, to be vulnerable onstage,” Grewal said. “There’s a little bit of me in the character so every time we do the show it’s really emotional.”
“SWS” has not gone entirely without opposition. In regards to some of the backlash the title that has received on social media, Morton said that it was really upsetting, but she wasn’t surprised.
“The title itself elicits such a visceral response in lots of people,” she said. “We’re used to putting Shakespeare on a pedestal. It’s not us just bashing Shakespeare, it’s about this culture that we’re in.”
According to the cast and crew, “SWS” is for everyone and they can’t wait to share this story with audiences this weekend.
“It’s an opportunity for white people to learn,” Grewal said. “If you are not a person of color, even if you consider yourself to be an ally and supportive, I think there’s more to learn and experiences are being shared that you might not realize or understand.”
Watring agreed, saying that all audiences are welcome to this show.
“If you’re a person of color, especially if you’re a person of color who works in the arts, it speaks to you on a certain level,” Watring said. “This show is about active allyship. White people should see it too because there is an entire narrative that they don’t typically get to hear.”
“Shakespeare Is A White Supremacist” will have performances on Thursday, Dec. 7 through Saturday, Dec. 9 at 8:30 p.m. in MGC 4. There will be a special free performance on Saturday, Dec. 9 at 3 p.m. and there will be a talkback led by dramaturg Marisa Lazar after the Friday, Dec. 8 performance. Tickets are $10 for the AU community and $15 for general audience members. Potential triggers in the show include racially charged/racist language spoken to and about POC characters, colorism, misogyny, colonialism and violence.