‘Much Ado About Nothing’ Features All-Black Cast For Central Park’s Shakespeare in The Park

Central Park’s annual summer Shakespeare performances will include an all-Black cast and a modern, politically charged take on Much Ado About Nothing. Tony Award-winning director Kenny Leon will stage William Shakespeare’s comedy at the Delacorte Theater, but with a contemporary twist for the 2019 season. The new version is set in modern-day Atlanta and is led by actress Danielle Brooks (Orange Is The New Black and The Color Purple).

“I didn’t cast it all Black because I wanted an all-Black production,” Leon told New York Daily News. “I cast it because it came to me in terms of the play about community and I just chose it around this specific place in Georgia. Everything about the play and all these universal messages will come through.”

Leon, who previously staged a version of Much Ado at Atlanta’s True Colors Theatre, said he has a great cast of actors, singers, and dancers for the New York performance. He added, “I think we’re doing something really special.” In a video for The Public Theater, Leon said, “To do Much Ado with this particular company, which is an all African American company, it sort of says something else as well: our stories are for everybody.”

Brooks is starring as Beatrice, Leonato’s niece and Hero’s cousin. “Being a lead in a Shakespeare — that never happens,” Brooks told BUILD Series NYC. “I gotta jump on this opportunity.” The actor is joined by Juilliard School alumni Grantham Coleman as Benedick and Jeremie Harris as Claudio. The role of Leonato is being portrayed by Tony Award-winning Broadway vet Chuck Cooper, The New York Daily News reported. “When you look at Much Ado, the first thing the play asks, Shakespeare asks, he says they are coming from war. And when I started thinking about wars, I’m reminded that we’re fighting for values in America now more than anything,” Leon said in the Public Theater video.

Leon continued: “And Much Ado is really about protecting those values of love, family, respect, all those things that we say we believe in. And I said, so let’s set it 2020 next spring a year from now — let’s see what our country looks like then.” The director worked with Columbia University professor James Shapiro to flip the play’s racial dynamics. Leon said the two spoke about Shakespeare and the prolific playwright's intended audience.

“And the more we talked about Shakespeare the more I realized if he was living today, he would be close to Black folks because he loved the common people, he loved the ordinary people, he loved the same people that August Wilson loved,” he told the Daily News. He added that he will take into account the sensitive nature of flipping the play’s sexual dynamics. Leon did this by changing the location of the play, from the Sicilian city of Messina to a modern mansion in Atlanta, Georgia. Shakespeare’s words were kept, but Leon added contemporary music.

The award-winning director said he thinks his iteration will speak to the collective experience of America today, and how people treat each other. Leon’s take is the latest production of The Public Theater’s 57th annual Free Shakespeare in the Park. Much Ado About Nothing is running from May 21 through June 23. The Public Theater said free tickets are distributed each day of the performance at select distribution points and an in-person lottery held in the lobby of The Public Theater. A digital lottery will be hosted through Today Tix.

There have been a number of all-Black plays and musicals in Broadway’s history. The first all-Black musical comedy to play in a major Broadway theater, In Dahomey, in 1903 included actor Bert Williams, according to Playbill. One of the best known Black musicals, Porgy and Bess, was actually written by three white men.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.