The African-American Shakespeare Company’s production of “Macbeth” reimagines the tragic “Scottish play” as the bitter and wildly mutinous dream sequence of a homeless American veteran.
Partially adapted into beautiful poetic verse by award-winning playwright and poet Migdalia Cruz, the company’s unique production of “Macbeth” speaks with extreme relevance to Bay Area audiences, charging all to engage with problems of homelessness and the treatment of society’s most downtrodden.
Upon entering the theater, the crowd is struck by the set; a homeless encampment seems to have been transplanted up the San Francisco Opera House’s four flights of marble stairs. Tents filled with sleeping bags, upside-down fruit crates and stray bottles are strewn across the stage. Red light glows from inside stacked tires draped with strips of cloth, indicating a bonfire. Tucked all around the stage are signs reading questions such as “This is my blanket, where did you sleep last night?” and “Have you ever felt invisible before?”
Set dresser, award-winning actress and UC Berkeley alumna Samira Mariama told The Daily Californian after the show that she was inspired by the talents and creativity of homeless individuals. “They are artists. They’re always recycling. They’re making walls out of anything,” Mariama said.
The production’s set is remarkable for its realism and sheer presence; almost identical encampments can be found in many places throughout the Bay Area. By recreating this type of space in the opulent San Francisco Opera House, the presence of homelessness in the region becomes impossible to ignore.
The company’s production begins in the “real world” of the homeless encampment. There are sounds of cars on the freeway, horns honking and distant yelling. Then, Shakespeare’s famous line from “King Lear” booms overhead: “Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel.” Adrian Roberts, a veteran of the Bay Area theater scene, plunges a dagger into a cardboard box, chillingly labeled “fragile.” Lights flash, and we are pulled into Shakespeare’s world — only in this production, homeless individuals are dukes and thanes, ragged camp tents are castle strongholds, and a wheelchair serves as the King’s throne.
Three shrouded witches leap onto the stage, tremoring in rhythmic unison and shaking collecting tins. Played by versatile ensemble members Funmi Lola, Oluchi Nwokocha and Mohana Rajagopal, the mystic trio swings and dances in unison like a three-headed hydra, running right up to the audience with the collecting tins. Often, the witches’ voices, pitched upward, overlap eerily on the overhead speaker.
The witches’ creative choreography and direction make their scenes some of the most entrancing within the production. At one point, Lola, Nwokocha and Mohana pile on top of one another, swaying and pulsing in unison, wielding flat round mirrors in each hand. Red and purple stage lights glance off the reflective surfaces, and the trio answers Macbeth’s demands for prophecy by suddenly pointing the mirrors toward him. In a brilliant metaphorical moment, when faced with his own reflection, Macbeth falls writhing to the floor.
Propelling the show forward throughout is the tense and compelling chemistry between Lady Macbeth (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) and Macbeth (Adrian Roberts). The production’s rising pulse parallels the couple’s deterioration, as both become obsessed with obtaining and securing power by any means necessary.
Mbele-Mbong carries herself with distinct regality and a sense of subdued but ever-present power that continuously prompts silent battles for control between her and Macbeth. In refreshingly masculine dress — jeans, black vest and tied scarf — the actress’s striking command over every drop of her audience’s attention makes Lady Macbeth’s slow, drastic unraveling all the more impactful.
Meanwhile, Roberts embodies a genuine, hardened and world-weary man who, in the words of director L. Peter Callender, is “tired of being overlooked and spit upon” and has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism. In particular, when Roberts thinks he sees the murdered Banquo (the powerful Champagne Hughes) hanging down in front of his face, everything from the actor’s scream to his attempt at rational mutterings is horrifying and supremely thrilling.
The African-American Shakespeare Company is dedicated to opening the realm of classical theater to a diverse group of actors and audiences. This month, with fierce care and bravery, the company directs the spotlight to San Francisco’s homeless population. The company and production both offer much to think about and learn from. Do not miss this production of “Macbeth.”