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Visiting professor Justin Emeka sets Macbeth against post-Civil War wreckage

Sep. 27, 2010


In Oberlin’s first mainstage play of the 2010-11 season, Emeka, a visiting professor of theater, reinterprets Shakespeare’s iconic power play by relocating the story to a time and place in America’s history when the war-ravaged nation was divided and faced with the task of rebuilding. By setting the classic text in Reconstruction-era tragedy, Emeka inserts African American culture and highlights racial and class struggles to lend new meaning to the themes of power and revenge.

“I use the cultural distinctions that were happening at the time, and are still happening today, to help us understand the relationships of the play,” Emeka says. “While it’s become more common for directors to use a certain location or time in history to adapt Shakespeare’s plays, the reference I’m using and the way I’m telling Macbeth is completely unique. The way I’m incorporating African culture, African American culture, and the convergence of northern and southern cultures has not likely been seen before.”

Emeka says the production stays true to Shakespeare’s text and the poetry of the language. With a multiracial cast and elements of West African mysticism, Emeka has been careful to reveal Macbeth in a way that is accessible without rewriting the play.

In Emeka’s production, Macbeth (Tip Scarry ’11) is a northern general recently married to a southern plantation owner (Lauren Friedlander ’11). Her insatiable desire for revenge and power drives Macbeth to conspire against northern liberal King Duncan—similar to Abraham Lincoln—played by guest artist Matthew Wright, an Equity actor and chair of the theater and dance department. Macbeth also turns his wrath upon Banquo (Ralph Johnson ’12), a northern black freedman who remained a steadfast soldier and comrade throughout the war.

The three witches, prophesiers of Macbeth’s rise and fall, are former slaves whose rites stylistically echo Yoruba traditions from West Africa. The witches’ mysticism involves possession and communication with the spirit world. The process by which they look into the future is told through chants, songs, and dance accompanied by rhythm and drums.

Emeka says the characters’ actions are motivated by how far they’re willing to go in the name of their country.

“Macbeth’s murders and Lady Macbeth’s ambitions are all done in the name of country,” Emeka says. “This play is a lot about rebuilding a country that has been divided. Macbeth is similar to union general William Tecumseh Sherman, and Lady Macbeth is a southern belle who has fallen in love with this powerful general but hates the north. I’m not interested in seeing Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as just evil people doing what they’re doing because they’re bad. You’ve got to humanize them and give them a real struggle.”

The cast in Emeka’s Macbeth illustrates the racial dynamics of America in the mid-1800s, which was largely defined by black and white, and slave and free.

“One of my inspirations behind doing this kind of work is the challenge of incorporating non-white actors into classic texts that are traditionally done by white actors,” Emeka says. “The notion of ‘color-blind casting’ was seen as a progressive because the stage was exclusively white for such a long time. I feel like we’re beyond that now. I’m very conscious about the racial aspect of whom I’m casting. I try to incorporate the race and culture into that character and into the world of the play.”

Emeka believes that inserting different cultures and experiences can help the audience understand plays in new ways. His groundbreaking vision led to 2008’s Death of a Salesman, featuring Avery Brooks ’70, which lent new meaning to Willie Loman’s struggle through the social and professional confines of a racially divided culture.

“I think there’s this feeling of compromise of quality or story by bringing in people of color,” he says. “Actually, by incorporating people of color and different cultural experiences into the telling of this story, the play becomes revealed in a very powerful and exciting way. I’ve changed very little of the text. The concept serves Shakespeare rather than Shakespeare serving my idea.”

Emeka’s concept will be a topic of study in Shakespeare courses taught by English professor Nick Jones.

“This is the perfect chance to enable us to talk about different period staging,” says Jones, who teaches Shakespeare through Film (English 107) and Shakespeare Re-mediated, a senior seminar. “I’ll have both classes see Emeka’s production and contrast it with a 1970s-era film adaption of Macbeth that we’ll watch.”

Jones says he’s not aware of a similar staging of the play in professional theater.

“Finding different settings for Shakespeare’s texts has become an interesting practice in theater,” Jones says. “Famously, Peter Brook’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the early ’70s was staged with circus elements. I have seen Troilus and Cressida (a lesser known Shakespeare tragedy set during the Trojan war) put in Civil War setting. I’ve seen Macbeth in modern contexts, but in the Civil War — maybe not.

“You can’t pass up the opportunity for students to see live theater with their colleagues performing. It should open up a lot of good discussion.”

Emeka says he’s grateful that Oberlin provides an ideal environment for creating experimental theater.

“I really want to take advantage of that potential and celebrate it with the audience,” Emeka says. “American theater has a tough time because it’s all about building an audience and selling tickets in competition with TV and film. There’s this epic struggle—how do we profit—in an industry that can’t compete. The college setting is a prime place to create extraordinary theater because it’s not driven by profitability.”

Macbeth will be performed October 7-9 at 8 p.m. and October 10 at 2 p.m. in Hall Auditorium, 67 N. Main St. For tickets and information, visit the theater and dance page.

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