A little bit rowdy, a little bit bawdy—and the kind of theatrical experience where the audience is given permission to whoop, holler and cry out if they are moved. Your first thought may not be “Shakespeare, of course!” unless it’s the production of The Merry Wives of Windsor running at African American Shakespeare Company in San Francisco May 4–26.
The 19-year-old company’s mission is to produce “classics with color,” and artistic director L. Peter Callender and director Becky Kemper envisioned a Merry Wives infused with flavor from the Chitlin’ Circuit—the network of clubs, theatres and dancehalls where black artists performed in the segregated years of the last century. The Circuit was a place to form community and see stories told in broad, loud and high style. It was for many years the only incubator of black performing arts.
The Merry Wives of Windsor lends itself to the hallmarks of Circuit-style performance: archetypes, heavy doubling of characters, cross-dressing, direct address and live music. These are also hallmarks of how Shakespeare was originally performed, and Kemper believes the styles mix perfectly together: “Vaudeville, Chitlin’ Circuit, TOBA, black urban theatre, whatever you want to call it, has a direct line to the Elizabethan playhouse and what was happening there.” The production will be set in the 1960s and will draw the audience in from the moment they enter the space, with a raunchy Falstaff (played by actress Belinda Sullivan) carousing in the parking lot. Using Shakespeare’s story, the production will bring the recognizable style of the old Circuit, mixed with the new style of Tyler Perry, plus a little reality TV.
Explains Callender, “These characters are bawdy people who cuss, fight, throw things—it’s all fabulous! Boobs and ass and dresses and beautiful people doing naughty things. There’s ‘Basketball Wives’ and ‘Mob Wives’ and ‘Real Housewives’—now we’ve got Merry Wives!”