‘Much Ado About Nothing’ – Shakespeare’s classic in present-day Georgia
Shakespeare’s timeless comedy about romantic retribution and miscommunication gets a 21st century update with an all-black cast in a “Great Performances” presentation debuting this week on PBS.
In “Much Ado About Nothing,” premiering Friday Nov. 22 (check local listings), as part of the series’ third annual “Broadway’s Best” lineup, Danielle Brooks (“Orange Is the New Black”) and Grantham Coleman (“The Americans”) star as sparring lovers Beatrice and Benedick in a performance from the New York Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park.
Set in contemporary Georgia during an election campaign, the story picks up with the community of Messina celebrating a break in an ongoing war. But that truce doesn’t extend to some of the townspeople as former rivals lock horns, revenge is sought and trickery runs rampant.
Others in the cast for Tony-winning director Kenny Leon (“American Son”) include Margaret Odette (“Instinct”), Jeremie Harris (“Legion”), Tiffany Denise Hobbs (“Claws”), Olivia Washington (Lee Daniels’ “The Butler”) and Tyrone Mitchell Henderson (“The Good Fight”).
The tone of the play is set from the beginning, as a group of characters sing a mash-up of “America the Beautiful” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” outside a brick house adorned with a large banner promoting former Georgia Congresswoman Stacey Abrams for an unspecified public office in 2020. A handful of soldiers from a local militia marches in.
“This is a story about our country,” Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theater, explained to a recent gathering of journalists in Beverly Hills, Calif. “This is a story about patriotism. This is a story about people who love their country and need to try to protect it from what’s happening. And that gave a seriousness of purpose, I think, to everything that followed, no matter how funny, that never went away.”
For Coleman, there are universal truths to be had in “Much Ado,” no matter the composition of the cast nor the fact that Shakespeare wrote it for 16th century audiences.
“I think what was unique about our production,” he says, “isn’t that it’s an all‑black cast, but that it’s a story in which the community happens to be full of black people. And it happens to be an affluent community outside of Atlanta, and it just happens to be a place where the soldiers are returning from a war. And I think that’s kind of how we focused on it and looked at it rather than there can only be black people in this show and this show is only for black people.
“I think we dug deeper into why is this a black community having these problems? Why are people lying? Why is there so much gossip? Why is there not as much love as there could be? How come these people don’t love each other? … So I think that the closer we got to the truth of what we were doing, the more human and universal it could be.”