This year’s Shakespeare in the Streets play explores our complicated love — for St. Louis | St. Louis Public Radio

This year’s Shakespeare in the Streets play explores our complicated love — for St. Louis

Sep 14, 2017

Shakespeare in the Streets' "Blow, Winds," inspired by "King Lear," is staged on the steps of the St. Louis Public Library, Central Library, downtown.
Credit Provided | Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

More than 1 million of us call the St. Louis area home.  But depending on whether you live in Affton, Ladue, Wellston or any other of the 90 municipalities — and where you went to high school — the experience varies widely.

A new play puts a Shakespearean spin on living in St. Louis. “Blow, Winds,” inspired by “King Lear,” is this year’s production of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’ Shakespeare in the Streets.

Joneal Joplin plays King Louis in Blow, Winds. He draws from his role as King Lear from 16 years ago.
Credit File | Provided | Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Veteran local actor Joneal Joplin plays the role of King Louis, a willful and foolish leader whose downfall is a cautionary tale meant to represent the plight of St. Louis itself.

“We are well past the point where, as a city, we recognize our faults and our flaws,” Joplin said. “We saw it with Ferguson and we know it happens almost every day, and we know it’s racial — there’s just no getting around it.”

'Blind love, deep love, proud love’

The Gentlemen of Vision perform as part of the Blow, Winds production. The organization of the same name supports socioeconomically disadvantaged male teenagers in cooperation with several of St. Louis-area school districts.
Credit File | Provided | Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

“Blow, Winds” opens Friday and runs through Sunday at St. Louis Public Library’s Central Library, downtown. It features a 60-person ensemble called The Gentlemen of Vision.

The play follows the “King Lear” story in its telling of a ruler descending into madness and homelessness, after dividing the kingdom among his children. In this rendition, the division has a local flavor.

“To the bastard son, I give the north,” Joplin said. “But the center is saved for my favorite daughter — and that’s downtown St. Louis.”

Joneal Joplin as King Louis, Adam Flores as The Fool and Michelle Hand as Kent rehearse a scene from Blow, Winds.
Credit Provided | Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Joplin said the play provides local residents an opportunity for self-exploration.

“For St. Louisans to reflect on how they really think about this city and about how the city has treated them and how the city has treated others,” Joplin said.

For playwright Nancy Bell, “Blow, Winds” is a kind of love story.

“’Blow Winds’ explores the different kinds of love people have for St. Louis: blind love, deep love, proud love, disappointed love, unrequited love, desperate love, unconditional love,” Bell wrote in an email.

‘The old ways have failed’

Shakespeare in the Streets presented its 2015 production in north St. Louis.
Credit File | Provided | Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

This year’s production marks the sixth annual Shakespeare in the Streets, which typically explores one neighborhood, not the entire city. Past presentations have examined Cherokee Street, The Grove, Clayton, Old North and Maplewood.

To gather ideas, Bell always begins by asking people in the area what it’s like to live there. For ‘Blow, Winds,’ she employed a similar tactic.

Playwright Nancy Bell accepts the Outstanding Theater Professional award at the 2017 Visionary Awards ceremony.
Credit File | Provided |J. David Levy

“It’s a gateway question, invites people to think differently and deeply about their relationship to a place, and it leads to other great questions, like how would you like it to be different? And how do you feel about those things?” Bell said.

Three main themes emerged regarding residents’ feelings about St. Louis: Attachment, potential and race/pain.

“There is a sense of hurt and rejection and rage on the parts of those among us who are shut out of a good education, who can’t have safety from brutality, who are denied dignity and equality because they are black,” Bell said. “There is a sense of real anguish about these things, and a sense that the old ways have failed utterly to protect us.

In a parallel to Shakespeare’s King, St. Louis is on the brink of an inevitable shift.

“You could make an argument that this is what Shakespearean tragedies are all about,” Bell said. “They portray the sacrifices good people must endure in order to bring about positive social change.”

Reginald Pierre as Edmund with Joneal Joplin as King Louis, who eventually ends up homeless on the St. Louis riverfront.
Credit Provided | Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

But Bell believes these tragedies are actually tales of optimism.

“The closing lines in King Lear begin: ‘The weight of this sad time we must obey. Let us speak what we feel, not what we ought to say,” Bell said. “I love that. That’s a very inspirational line for me, and it reminds me of what a really good Shakespeare in the Streets story circle experience is like, especially this year.”

If you go:

‘Blow, Winds’ presented by Shakespeare in the Streets

Where: St. Louis Public Library, Central Library, 1301 Olive St.

When: 8 p.m., Friday-Sunday, Sept. 15-17

Admission: Free

Follow Nancy on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL