“Macbeth” Reimagined at African-American Shakes

By Jean Schiffman

As part of an Oregon Shakespeare Festival project, award-winning playwright Migdalia Cruz pens a new and slightly modernized text of the Shakespeare classic.

When the curtain rises on the African-American Shakespeare Company’s “Macbeth,” you might think you’re watching “King Lear” instead. Onstage is a homeless encampment; from within a tent emerges a recording of Lear’s famous speech amidst the raging storm: “Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are . . .”

This is indeed the Scottish tragedy of ambition run murderously amok, set in modern times—its characters a band of ragged street people—with a new and slightly modernized text by award-winning playwright Migdalia Cruz, tweaked for artistic director L. Peter Callender’s production concept.

Cruz’s adaptation is part of Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Play on!, a project that commissioned 36 playwrights—mandating that the majority be women and people of color—to “translate” all of Shakespeare’s plays into contemporary English. The new versions have since been workshopped and staged around the country.

“Oregon Shakes says Shakespeare will live forever, but sometimes people zone out,” explains self-professed Shakespeare nerd Callender. “This [translation] is 70 percent Shakespeare, 30 percent contemporary.”

But that 30 percent is almost imperceptibly integrated. As she explains in the script’s foreword, Cruz immersed herself in two “Macbeth” texts, examined every form of verse within them, studied the punctuation, explored the meaning, history and pronunciation of every word (as well as periods of history in both Scotland and England) and even visited the actual 11th-century Scottish king’s grave in the Inner Hebrides. Her mantra, as proscribed by Play on!, was to “do no harm.” She wove in modern equivalents of archaic expressions, added some new songs, expanded the role of the witches, slightly modified the ending, did some cutting and pasting and so on.

Callender, who is concerned and moved by the plight of the homeless, found himself thinking, What if a group of homeless people were to imagine themselves in a play in which they were to rebel against their plight? “So the play becomes a dream play,” he explains, “with a leader [who thinks about] becoming [the king of 6th Street]. What if he does, and what happens when ultimate power corrupts?”

Thus this “Macbeth” becomes a play within a play, its 27 roles performed by a multiculturally diverse cast of 10, led by Adrian Roberts in the title role and Leontyne Mbele-Mbong as his wife. (Banquo is played by a woman—“I don’t feel Shakespeare’s male characters should always be male, I think we’re past all that now,” says Callender.)

Callender expects to run the five-act drama in two acts, without an intermission, set from dusk to dawn on a single night. Yet the play is intact, from “Is this a dagger I see before me?” onward. “We’re making history here!” he says, of the national movement to renew Shakespeare’s works. “I want African-American Shakes to be part of it.”


July 13-28

African-American Shakespeare Company

Taube Atrium Theater, Veterans Building, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco