St. Louis Shakespeare Festival's African 'King Lear' Is Fresh Take On Revered Playwright
As a young, Black actor, Carl Cofield thought William Shakespeare wasn’t relevant to his life.
“I did not come to it easily,” he said recently during a rehearsal break at Shakespeare Glen in Forest Park. “I didn’t think Shakespeare spoke to me.”
His experience is not uncommon among theater artists of color. For decades, many American theaters have treated Shakespeare’s work as the domain of white artists.
Following the publication of a much-circulated open letter to the white theater establishment last year, many in the field are questioning a canon dominated by white playwrights … with Shakespeare looming above them all.
They ask: What role does Shakespeare have in the diverse theater canon of the future?
One possible answer is offered by St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s production of “King Lear,” now performing in Forest Park. Helmed by Cofield, who set the story in Africa, the show articulates a decidedly Black perspective. It features an 18-person cast composed entirely of people of color, as are three of the production’s four lead designers.
“It might sound different because you’re not used to hearing an actor of color be a Hamlet, be a King Lear, be a Falstaff,” Cofield said. “But if you stay with it and use your imagination, you might have a richer experience.”
Cofield found a place for himself in the world of Shakespeare when a conservatory teacher challenged him to relate to the texts through his own experiences. He has since directed productions of “Twelfth Night,” “The Tempest” and other Shakespeare plays — including a production of “Macbeth” at the Classical Theatre of Harlem, where he is associate artistic director.
Shakespeare expert Patricia Akhimie of Rutgers University — recently named St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s scholar-in-residence — said one of her early experiences with Shakespeare was viewing the 1993 film of “Much Ado About Nothing,” featuring Denzel Washington.
“At the time it did not strike me as strange,” she said, “but looking back on it I saw how unusual that casting was.”
Many Black artists are considered among the greatest Shakespearean actors, including Ira Aldridge, Paul Robeson and James Earl Jones. And more Black actors and other actors of color have been prominently cast in Shakespeare productions at white-run theaters in recent decades, Akhimie said.
André De Shields, who plays the aged king in the Forest Park “King Lear,” and John Douglas Thompson, who will lead a Commonwealth Shakespeare Company production of “The Tempest” in Boston Common this summer, are among the most acclaimed Shakespearan practitioners now working.
Yet old assumptions persist within the white theater establishment.
“There is still the pervasive understanding of Shakespeare as implicitly white,” Cofield said. “That is, unless someone is explicitly named as different, that everyone and everything in the play are white. That still is alienating for audiences. It was for me.”
This is despite a common assertion among white Shakespeare scholars that the Bard’s work is universally relevant.
“People talk about the universality of Shakespeare, yet they always want to do it the same way,” said Adam Flores, St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s community engagement and education manager, during a panel discussion about Shakespeare and race hosted by Missouri History Museum in May.
Inventive stagings of Shakespeare are common, including modern-dress versions. Afrocentric productions by white-led theater companies are not.
An Afrofuturist ‘Lear’
The production in Forest Park offers opportunities to actors of color who are unaccustomed to landing big roles in Shakespeare productions, despite their other achievements in the theater.
St. Louis native Jacqueline L. Thompson, an accomplished actress and stage director, said she didn’t see many Black actors in Shakespeare plays as a child. She portrays the king’s scheming daughter Regan in this production.
“For people like me growing up, who feel it’s not reachable, it’s not relatable, they can’t tackle it,” Thompson said, “this is saying, yes you can. Yes, you can do this too.”
But beyond simply featuring actors of color, this “King Lear” is rooted in a Black point of view. Cofield set the production in an unnamed northern African nation, about 30 years in the future.
The production elements vividly create an immersive world. Wilson Chin’s set design suggests a once-mighty empire on the verge of falling. Mika Eubanks’ costume design is rooted in African clothing styles. David R. Molina’s original music is inspired by the electronic music currently produced in Uganda and Kenya. In places where Shakespeare’s text calls for trumpet flourishes to announce the arrival of the king, actors play African drums.
The staging suggests new interpretations of the material.
Early in the play, the Duke of Burgundy insists he’ll only marry King Lear’s youngest daughter if she regains the large inheritance the king revoked from her. In this new context, the scene suggests the history of European powers plundering Africa for its natural resources.
“If we do our job right,” Cofield said, “I want people to say: Damn, I never thought of it like that. I had no idea that the meanings could shift and the themes might resonate in a different way.”
The play also feels more urgent and contemporary in Cofield’s staging, said Molina, the composer and sound designer. He specializes in contemporary plays by artists of color but was hooked by Cofield’s vision for this show.
“You have to relate to today’s times,” he said. “Even the classics and old plays, these plays were written in response to what was happening in their time. So we have to respond to what’s happening today.”
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