Reworking Shakespeare is a tricky business. What might seem a clever commentary on a classic work can fall flat if it lacks the substance that made the play timeless. I remember a much-hyped modern-dress production of Romeo and Juliet that portrayed the star-crossed lovers as shallow members of the MTV generation: a limited and cynical portrayal that grew tiresome after the first few scenes because, in his struggle for cleverness, the director neglected the play's essential themes. What makes the Black Ensemble's production of Julius Caesar so potent is that the company ingeniously updates this historical drama to illuminate motifs of power, corruption, and revenge in modern African American life.
Perhaps the strongest aspect of this adaptation is the ease and invention with which director Harry J. Lennix establishes the setting. In the opening scene Flavius and Marullus--minor characters whom Shakespeare describes as "tribunes of the people"--appear in police uniforms and accost citizens in the street, telling them to go home. Rome is obviously a place of unrest, politically and socially, and the attitude of even African American police toward other African Americans is tainted with fear and distrust. Without twisting the central thrust of the play, Lennix's modifications serve as sound exposition for the intrigue that follows.
While the parallels are not exact, the motifs and personalities introduced from modern African American culture are thought provoking. Caesar and Brutus unmistakably resemble Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. And as Brutus grows disillusioned with Caesar's methods, the rift between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad is naturally evoked.
As the play progresses it becomes clear that Lennix is not content with just making a clever, exploitive reference to Malcolm X. Instead he stresses Shakespeare's theme of "the evil that men do," and how that evil only begets more evil. Brutus is seen as a man of noble intentions whose revolution is abused and perverted: the conspiracy against Caesar, which he thought was for the good of Rome, in reality only serves to foster others' greed and ambition. Later, in one of the highlights of the production, Marc Antony (who bears a strong resemblance to Louis Farrakhan) delivers his famous eulogy to Caesar as a rousing sermon to rile his countrymen into violence. What follows is a chilling scene in which vigilantes blindly exact revenge from a woman because she has the same name as one of the conspirators--a random kind of violence that's only too common in our recent history.
With a strong ensemble and nontraditional casting, Lennix fully carries out his intelligent concept. Bernard Mixon portrays Caesar as both wise and haughty, a combination that helps explain Brutus's fear that Caesar might become a tyrant. Brutus is played by Sam Sanders as a conscientious but confused man who agonizes over every decision, which makes it more tragic when his choices prove to be poor. Cassius is played passionately by Mimi Ayers--a casting choice that suggests a more complex relationship between Brutus and Cassius, especially during their final scene. Dwain A. Perry steals the show with his portrayal of Marc Antony, the devoted disciple who undergoes a radical change when he tastes power. The language is handled well for the most part, with a nice balance created between modern speech patterns and the delivery of verse; some speeches, however, are flatly interpreted. Certain liberties have been taken with the script, a choice that can be forgiven because the changes seem to have been made to focus the plot.
The simple design stresses the action. Tim Hett's lighting subtly defines the scenes, played on Moses Darden's minimalist set: an open playing area and platforms. The only decoration is a large, faint "X" on the back wall, so subtle it almost seems left over from another production.
What is most remarkable is that by sticking with Shakespeare's play the Black Ensemble has created a very original and exciting work considering issues that are all too contemporary. While some of the credit goes to Shakespeare, this is an achievement that deserves notice.