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St. Louis Shakespeare’s touring ‘Midsummer’ reflects Black, queer culture

Puck, as played by Christina Yancy, casts a spell on Lysander, as played by Mel McCray
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Puck, as played by Christina Yancy, casts a spell on Lysander, as played by Mel McCray, on Tuesday during a performance of “A Midsummer Night's Dream” in the Old North neighborhood of St. Louis. The play, hosted by the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival, is playing for free in 24 parks in the region through Aug. 27.

St. Louis native Tre G got an early start in the arts. He began singing in church when he was four years old and acted in his first professional play when he was eight. More recently, he founded werQfest, a celebration of Black artists who identify as queer, trans and non-binary.

Tre G, 29, is now turning his focus to William Shakespeare, with a lively adaptation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that features his original music.

The production is produced by St. Louis Shakespeare Festival and tours outdoor spaces in St. Louis and the Metro East until Aug. 27. It performs Friday at Love Bank Park in St. Louis, Saturday at Harney Mansion Grounds in Sullivan and Sunday at Pomme Creek Park in Arnold. All shows are free.

The show represents Tre G’s distinct perspective as a Black, queer artist.

“We do have more representation in media than in the past,” he said. “There are more examples of Black queerness out there. And I would love to be able to just put a little imprint on that.”

St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy D. Goodwin spoke with Tre G about the creative collaboration behind the show and how Shakespeare’s work turned out to be fertile ground for a fresh approach.

Jeremy D. Goodwin: How is this production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” different from things we’ve seen before?

Tre G: We’re kind of taking an Afrofuturist approach. I’ve added some music that’s really inspired by, just, true Blackness, and house and futurism. But also very current and now.

I’m very excited to work with Brandin Vaughn, our costume designer, who is from St Louis. He’s been such an influence on St. Louis and what Black fashion can look like here. So I think it’s a perfect merger for us to create this world together.

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Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Ricki Franklin performs to the crowd while explaining Shakespearean language on Tuesday before a performance of “A Midsummer Night's Dream” in the Old North neighborhood of St. Louis.

Goodwin: Did St. Louis Shakespeare Festival approach you and say they’d specifically like a staging of “Midsummer” that’s different from what they’ve done before?

Tre-G: Yes. They literally said, “Hi, would you be interested in coming and doing a ‘Midsummer’ that included an all-Black cast — but you can bring you as yourself, as Tre G, and whatever that meant?”

So of course, I said, absolutely!

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Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Tiélere Cheatem, center, is confronted by, from left, Ricki Franklin, Rae Davis, Christina Yancy and Mel McCray on Tuesday during a performance of “A Midsummer Night's Dream” in the Old North neighborhood of St. Louis.

Goodwin: When you say that St. Louis Shakespeare specifically encouraged you to bring yourself to the production, that’s huge.

Tre G: A lot of the time we’re hired and we still have to follow the rules. A lot of the times you approach this in a different way because you think it’s this Eurocentric kind of thing. So I’m really excited to just bring our youthful version of this to the community. And I’m hoping that maybe some young Black actor, or some young, Black, queer actor, gets a chance to see themselves represented in a new light.

Of course, we've seen more examples of Blackness in Shakespeare lately, like St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s “King Lear" last year.

Mel McCray holds Rae Davis on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022, during a performance of “A Midsummer Night's Dream” in north St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Lysander, as played by Mel McCray, holds Hermia, as played by Rae Davis, on Tuesday during a performance of “A Midsummer Night's Dream."

Goodwin: You have a six-person cast with all Black actors. And there’s several women in the cast?

Tre G: Yes, we have an all-femme cast besides one who identifies as nonbinary. Which is also really cool because we’re trying to take this approach where we see these characters in a new light, almost like androgyny. What if we took gender and gender norms out of the equation and we just saw these people as humans and just the beings that they actually are? How would we experience love in a new way? How would we experience relationships in a new way?

Goodwin: This perspective that you and the cast bring to the production, how does that intersect with what happens in "Midsummer"?

Tre G: We get a chance to actually strip down the characters in a new way. I’m just trying to find those new ways that we can connect to the story. I’m trying to find those references in Black culture and what it means to be excellent. What it means to just be. A lot of the questions in rehearsal have been: What is Afrofuturism? What is Black joy?

And I really feel like it’s literally just us being here, us showing up. Just us being here, taking up space. Just that is enough. And a lot of times we’re told that’s not enough.

You might see some dancing and a lot of influences from Black house, from Black queerness and the ballroom scene. You might see some vogueing. You might see influences from everything.

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Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Tiélere Cheatem bows to the audience Tuesday after a performance of “A Midsummer Night's Dream” in the Old North neighborhood of St. Louis. The play hosted by the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival is playing for free in 24 parks through Aug. 27.

Goodwin: Is “Midsummer” good material to be able to have some fun with and throw some music in there and do some different things?

Tre G: Yes. The script is funny. So, yes, it’s great material that we get to play around with, that we get to explore through our Black experiences. It’s so funny, even with [the characters known as] the Mechanicals, we’ve been approaching it from: What if these were the deacons at church, in this basement, Baptist church? And them putting on a play, which a lot of the times in our community we do, and that’s our first experience to art. So yeah, we’ve really been trying to find our own experiences, our own Black experiences, and how we can lend that to the things that are already written. And actually it’s been a great merger.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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