In her 26 years living in Portland, René Johnson says, she remembers seeing only one person of color performing Shakespeare on stage here. And that one performer, she says, was herself.
That’s one reason why Johnson, founder and Creative Artistic Director of the Theater Ensemble of Color, chose Shakespeare for the company’s first fully produced show. The Others is a multicultural, multiethnic ensemble production that interweaves scenes from Shakespeare’s works, adapted by Carmen-maria Mandley (who also directs) and billed as “a compilation of slaves, strumpets, bastards, shrews, whores, monsters, witches, aliens and infidels.” Performed by an 11-member ensemble — of which ten are performers of color — from the ages of six to sixty-seven, The Others runs this weekend at SPACE Gallery.
The Theater Ensemble of Color (or TEoC, pronounced “TEE-ock”) began as Johnson, whose work at the Celebration Barn, in South Paris, was brought into contact with performers of color who, she saw, weren’t getting the work offered their white counterparts.
“Like me, they were getting offers to play non-speaking, dehumanizing roles, in stories that didn’t resemble the lives that we know,” says Johnson. “The slave/maid/mammy, the doo-wop girl or the angry black victim was all that was expected of me to know how to play.” Frustration grew to fury, she says, and in 2014 she began conceiving TEoC, with the mission of strengthening communities through performance, education, and activism.
The TEoC’s upcoming production interweaves scenes from over a dozen Shakespeare shows, centering — often with wicked slapstick humor — on characters (each actor plays several) who experience feelings of otherness, whether by virtue of race, religion, gender, or disability.
At a rehearsal last week, performers bellowed epithets of otherness — “Slave!” “Strumpet!” “Bastard!” — as Bridgette Kelly wove among them delivering Shylock’s most famous monologue (“If you prick us, do we not bleed?”), before Prospero (Rodney Mashia) and his slave Caliban (David Thete) stalked and wished each other ill. Later came a sassily kinetic duel between Kate (Russell Kaback) and Petruchio (Mario Roberge-Reyes), filled with deliciously silly and suggestive stage combat. Portia (Nicole Mokeme) and another Shylock (Khalil LeSaldo) maneuvered with taut intelligence over the Jew’s bond, and Richard III (Jason Cunningham) rued his disfigurement. Casting transcends convention: a woman (Kelly) plays Desdemona’s father while a man plays Desdemona (Dontavis Hines); the role of Hermione is doubled into two performers (Kelly and Mokeme), who elegantly slip in and out of unison. (The ensemble also includes Christina Richardson and Delaney Tucker).
For TEoC to bring so many performers of color, including some new to acting, into Portland’s artistic conversation is important for both art and community — especially, Johnson notes, at this contentious political moment fraught with online echo chambers.
“As Creative Artistic Director,” she says, “my goal is to create opportunities for Maine families to be entertained by, educated by and involved with our neighbors the same way – and hopefully more than – we are by our technology.”
Actors agree. “Performing means everything to me, especially in the era that we are living in,” says actor Thete, who is also a founder of Kesho Wazo, a group of over 35 local activists under 21 dedicated to anti-hate work. “There are many young men whose crafts and skills aren’t being highlighted, when it comes to the art scene in Maine. Being part of this production, I feel like I get to shine a light on the other young kids like me who are being boxed. I hope the Portland audience will support local young artists and come to more events because the youth is very active. We have so much to offer!”
Listening and engaging beyond what’s familiar might be the surest way to start reframing our Others as part of ourselves.
The Others, adapted by Carmen-maria Mandley from William Shakespeare. | Directed by Carmen-maria Mandley. Produced by the Theater Ensemble of Color of the Celebration Barn Theater | $15 adv, $20 day of | Jan 13–15 at SPACE Gallery | http://teoc-maine.weebly.com.