Cleopatra on the Caribbean


Tarell Alvin McCraney Reimagines Shakespeare’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ in Haiti, as Lizzie SImon reports in this article for The Wall Street Journal.

Of all the things that $625,000 can buy, the freedom to decline new projects means a lot to the playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, who received one of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius grants” in September.

“It has already begun to change how much I pack on,” the 33-year-old said. “I’m able to say ‘no.’ I’m able to say ‘wait.’ ”

Mr. McCraney is currently in the midst of his most ambitious effort to date, “Antony and Cleopatra,” which will have its New York premiere at the Public Theater next week. The play, first published in 1623, has a reputation for being one of the most difficult in Shakespeare’s canon, with leaps through time and space and more than 40 characters.

As the play’s editor and director, Mr. McCraney whittled the cast down to 10 players, but for the most part retained its language, characters and plot. Where he has realized his own vision is in the setting, placing the story not at the dawn of the Sicilian revolt but the Haitian Revolution. While Cleopatra and Antony remain, along with references to Egypt and Rome, the composer Michael Thurber has incorporated rara, a musical genre native to Haiti, and choreographer Gelan Lambert added French and Afro-Caribbean dance into the production.

“When reading the piece, you’re aware that Shakespeare is highly concerned with, interested in, fascinated by the colonial economic and political power transfer between Egypt and Rome at the time,” Mr. McCraney said. “France and Haiti were involved with a similar kind of relationship. Without Haiti, France couldn’t fund most of its wars.”

The production, whose cast is equal parts American and British, is in collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, where it had its world premiere in November, and Miami’s GableStage, where it had its U.S. premiere in January.

Miami is Mr. McCraney’s hometown, and there he helped develop a partnership with the public-school system that brought more than 4,000 local students to weekday matinee performances.

“When I was a kid, I took part in so many social programs designed for low-income families,” he said. “I took tons of ballet classes and painting classes because there were centers to keep me out of trouble. Those are scarce now.”

“It was essential to Tarell’s vision to have an impact on Miami, to bring theater to kids who were like him,” said Oskar Eustis, the Public Theater’s artistic director.

Mr. Eustis produced Mr. McCraney’s first play, “The Brothers Size,” at the Public in 2007, when Mr. McCraney was a third-year student at the Yale School of Drama. “Tarell was one of those very rare artists where it felt like he’d sprung from Zeus fully formed,” Mr. Eustis said. “We were among the first to notice, but we were by no means unique in noticing.”

Since then, Mr. McCraney has had a handful of critically acclaimed plays produced on the New York stage. His trilogy, “The Brother/Sister Plays,” followed a family in Lafayette, La. “Wig Out!” was centered around drag performers in Harlem. And “Choir Boy,” which ran this summer at Manhattan Theater Club, was about the struggles of a gay prep-school student in the South.

Mr. Eustis said that he has observed Mr. McCraney go from creating what he called “jewel-box” plays to ones with larger, thornier themes. “I’ve seen him stretching, to see how broad a vision he can create,” he said. “In his adaptation of ‘Antony and Cleopatra,’ he’s both exploring the tension between the attraction of worldly power and the attraction of love, and also looking at what happens to personal relationships mediated by colonialism and power struggles. He doesn’t shy away from the big issues.”

“Antony” received mixed reviews during its British and Miami runs, and Mr. McCraney continues to make adjustments to everything from the lighting to the performances.

Thanks to the MacArthur grant, he said, “there’s nothing else I’m thinking about.”

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