For those who have seen William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet a thousand times, The Classical Theatre of Harlem’s rendition of this classic tale, Romeo n Juliet, adapted and directed by Justin Emeka, is like nothing you have ever seen. This production brings the colorful and enlivened characters of Harlem and the African Diaspora to life, from The Black Panther party to African ancestors who actively observe in the distance, from the sounds of the drum to the colorful rhythms of Reggae, Shabba Ranks and Lauryn Hill. The mind is immediately swept into a classic tale with a modern-day urban twist. This edited adaptation by no means undermines the classic beauty of Shakespeare’s written word, but rather through the use of cultural infusion of urban and realistic language alongside the classic hip-hop beats of the 80’s and 90’s adds a well-curated layer to a classic story of passion, tragedy, division, unnecessary strife and unnecessary conflict. This production is action-packed and exhilarating from the very start with: a life-filled party inclusive of jumping robe, dancing, and conflict all within the first five minutes.
Be prepared to witness superb stage-combat skills as the Capulets and the Montagues spare nothing in expressing their contempt for one another. The innocent passion and youthful affection between Romeo (Sheldon Best) and Juliet (Natalie Paul), who light up the stage every single time that they engage one another, are in perfect juxtaposition to the gritty, gray backdrop of the urban city. Set against a monochromatic brick backdrop, the vivid colors of the wardrobe pop off of the stage. African print head-wraps, coral-colored flowing dresses, rainbow-colored sneakers, army fatigues and bright colored tees, in addition to high-fashion tailored suits, add a tropical and fresh layer to the overall production. The visual presentation is vibrant and visually stimulating to say the least.
Natalie Paul is a sweet and endearing Juliet whose affection for her Romeo is genuine and pure. Sheldon Best’s turn as Romeo is a delight to witness as he shows great range in his ability to teeter the spectrum of both great pleasure and pain. Best stole the heart of many in the audience, when he groaned from his inner being “give me my sin again”, expressing his desire to have Juliet in his presence once more.
The entire multicultural ensemble does an excellent job of using their words and actions to bring new meaning to the text. Jamie Rezanour gives a genuine, sweet and at times comical portrayal as the Nurse; Zainab Jah is the perfect embodiment of the ethereal and mystic Sister Laurence; Jason Delane portrays Lord Capulet with great passion and fervor; and Dorcas Sowunmi is a fitting Lady Capulet. Ty Jones (also the Producing Artistic Director of the CTH) is an intriguing Mercutio, spewing the words of the text with the linguistic dexterity of a well-seasoned poet. And the rest of the cast -- Jameal Ali (Paris), Emmanuel Brown (Tybalt), Kambi Gathesha (Benvolio), Clark Harris (Montague), Kendrick Crowder (Prince), Anthony Lalor (Panther, Brother John), Levell Franklin, Amara Granderson, Patricia Janvier, Jared Lewis and Djaka Souare -- is also exemplary, everyone owning their roles whether large or small.
Under the direction of Justin Emeka, this production is presented in such a way that die-hard Shakespeare fans and those new to the classics can appreciate the underlying message of the universality of love and how the residue of strife and division can destroy a community. The Classical Theatre of Harlem’s Romeo n Juliet gives subtle glimpses into the past and paints on canvas of the mind a new take on this tragic tale. With the production’s multi-culturally diverse cast and deliberate adaptation that includes the Harlem landscape and the people of the African Diaspora, it exemplifies how diversity, differing perspectives and re-appropriating traditional perspectives in a new light really work.
Positioned in Marcus Garvey Park in historic Harlem, with a light summer breeze dancing through the air, the spacious Richard Rodgers Amphitheatre is the perfect venue for this modern, urban adaptation of The Classical Theatre of Harlem’s Romeo n Juliet. This production runs for 90 minutes with no intermission, but be prepared for the time to fly by quickly as this show is jam-packed with action, great acting and so much more. If you are not Uptown, get there quickly to see this amazing show!
Through July 27th at the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater in Marcus Garvey Park.