A New ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in Black and White

Times Theater Critic

Modern-dress versions of Shakespeare are rife, and usually quite meaningless. Yes, “The Taming of the Shrew” can be set in the Wild West, and what does that prove?

But picture “Romeo and Juliet” as the love story of a black youth and a white girl, keyed to the conditions of a small town in Mississippi. Now picture it being performed by an interracial cast in such a town.

That’s not meaningless. Robert Coe reports on the production in American Theatre magazine. Port Gibson, Miss., was the town, and the production was staged by a traveling company called Cornerstone Theatre, using local people as well as their own actors.

Port Gibson is legally integrated but culturally segregated, and the “Verona” portrayed in the show was the same, with the Montagues (blacks) and the Capulets (whites) on different sides of the color line, from which comes the tragedy.

“A plague on both your races,” says the dying Mercutio. And Tybalt’s taunting “Thou art a villain” becomes “Thou art a nigger.” The updates made community leaders nervous, and so did the fact that the kids in the cast were doing some interracial partying after the show, which is not the style in Port Gibson.


But the show went well--riotously well, in the fight scenes. And it got people thinking about the parallels between their town and the one in the story. “No one knows if (the production’s) spirit will last,” Coe writes--but no one believed it would happen in the first place.

Beth Henley’s turf is also Mississippi. Henley’s “The Debutante Ball,” which had its premiere at South Coast Repertory in 1985, opened in London in June, at the Hampstead Theatre.

James Christopher in Time Out was exhilarated by Henley’s whacked-out characters: “It’s like watching a showdown at the OK Corral between Sigmund Freud and Agatha Christie, where everyone gets shredded in the cross-fire.”

But Michael Coveney of the Financial Times found another comparison: “Like viewing ‘Cinderella’ through a distorting glass supplied by Charles Addams and populated around the lens by would-be participants in ‘The Munsters.’ I only wish it had been as funny as I make it sound.”

And most of the critics were with Coveney.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: David Richards of the Washington Post on Mandy Patinkin’s new one-man show, “Dress Casual”: “An ideal concert for people who are of the opinion that Liza Minnelli, as an entertainer, tends to hold back.”