A few years ago, Rick Dildine, then Executive Director of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis called me and changed my life. He had an idea about making original community-based plays based on Shakespeare. He wanted to shut down streets and put up stages and perform these plays by, with, and for the people of St. Louis for free. Since then, I’ve served as the playwright for these projects three times, in three different neighborhoods throughout the city. Before I worked on the Shakespeare in the Streets program, I had no idea how disillusioned I had become about theatre. I’ve learned that if you really try to make your plays relevant to your audience, you can. Who knew.
The most recent Shakespeare in the Streets production took place on a street in Clayton, a small city in the metro St. Louis area, in September of 2014. Have you heard about Michael Brown? Well, he was an unarmed black kid and a policeman shot him and his body lay face down on a sidewalk for four hours, which bothers some of us. That happened in August of 2014 and as I write this, the decision of whether or not to indict the police officer who shot him has still not been announced. Stop me if you’ve heard this before.
Also, suburban police have tanks and tear gas, now.
When that happened, we were about to go into rehearsal for our latest Shakespeare in the Streets. It’s an adaptation of As You Like It called Good in Everything. In our research and interview process, we learned a lot about the voluntary desegregation program in the city of Clayton, and our adaptation explored that. Rosalind is a bright but sheltered girl from white privilege and Orlando is a black kid from a poor neighborhood in St. Louis who busses into her high school
The script was finished before Michael Brown was shot. And although we briefly considered changing it to directly reflect the unfolding story, we decided ultimately to leave it the way the way it was, because we felt it already resonated with those events, and that it would be more powerful to let the audience make those connections themselves. In the play, Rosalind and Orlando do have their familiar, Shakespearean debate about what love is, but they also begin to have difficult and necessary conversations about racism and privilege:
Ok, let’s start over.
I’m Rosalind. We’re at Clayton High School.
First day of class.
Hi, Orlando, how are you?
Why do you always say that?
Can I say I’m whitetastic?
Depends on how confident you feel.
I get that race is a big thing, but not everything is about race, you know.
Maybe not to you.
I don’t really see color.
Let’s start over.
But here is the most important line in the play for me. Near the end of their conversations in Arden, Orlando despairs. He sees that love between him and Rosalind is impossible. He says, “How can someone love you if they don’t know you. And how can they know you if they are afraid to come to your house?”
I based the character of Orlando on Maalik Shakoor, the actor who plays him in the show. Maalik was then a senior at Clayton High who had been bussing into Clayton for years (He graduated in May, he’s going to Webster University now). Maalik really impressed me. I learned a lot from him because he’s so articulate about this experience he had going back and forth to Clayton from what he calls “the hood.” And although he came into their world every day, not many of the people he encountered in Clayton—perfectly lovely people—had ever been to his. He had a familiarity and understanding of both worlds. The people he spent his school days with didn’t. In fact, some of them had misconceptions and assumptions-many of them unconscious-about his world. And this was sometimes a very lonely experience for him.
Any city needs love. Any successful city is running on love. For me, a city is a powerful testament of civic love, against the odds, and in the face of overwhelming obstacles. Love tolerates. Love allows. Love helps. Love shares. Loves listens. Love sees and understands even when it doesn’t agree.
But how can someone love you if they don’t know you and how can they know you if they are afraid to come to your house?
Do we really need an epilogue?
Do you guys even want one? Are there people out there right now who are making their way up the aisles to beat the crowd to their car even as we speak?
What is an epilogue anyway?
An epilogue is supposed to be where we come out and beg you. Beg you to applaud, usually.
But my mother didn’t raise me to be a beggar. My way is to conjure you. That’s the word Rosalind uses in the real As You Like It by William Shakespeare: conjure.
According to the Shakespeare lexicon, in this case conjure means “to call upon with solemnity.”
(She raises her hands.)
Oh, Audience, anxious to get the hell out of here, hear us!
Time is cruel and impersonal.
A laughing force that destroys Youth,
And decays everything,
And renders everything that is held together by stories and attachment as dust.
The only cure for Time is abiding Love.
And Love does abide.
Everybody knows that,
But we forget.
It’s just a game we play with ourselves,
Like Hide and Seek,
Or Peek a Boo you play with babies.
Now you see Love, now you don’t.
Love is behind every portrait, every story, every play,
A bright shining presence hidden beneath our costumes,
And tucked behind the set.
And I don’t just mean personal Love, either.
I believe in a civic Love, too.
That’s in the streets and buildings and coffee shops and busses.
Contained in schools and churches
And even businesses and banks.
And both of these Loves are available to you at every moment,
In any way you want it,
For as long as you can stand to feel that much joy.
You can have it.
As you like it.
BLACKOUT. END OF PLAY.