Modern retelling of 'Romeo and Juliet' sheds light on race relations, police violence
Muhlenberg's Troy Dwyer rewires Shakespeare's romantic tragedy to speak to contemporary audiences
During one month in the summer of 2014, in separate incidents in cities across the United States, four unarmed black men were killed while being arrested by police officers. None of the officers who used lethal force in these cases were held legally accountable.
Police violence against black men is not a new issue, but the frequency of recent incidents and intense media coverage has pushed it to the fore in the national discourse. This spring, a group of young theater artists, led by faculty member and director Troy Dwyer, enters the dialogue with an audacious production of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." The show runs April 22-26 at Muhlenberg College Theatre & Dance.
"It's definitely a piece of protest art, and one I imagine Shakespeare purists won't like," Dwyer says. "I'm cool with that."
Dwyer's production will remain essentially faithful to the events and language of Shakespeare's classic, but will feature two important twists: the action of the play will be set in a modern Midwest, and Juliet's family, the Capulets, will be a black family.
"This will be the first time an African-American family will be represented on the Muhlenberg stage since I have worked at the college," says Dwyer, who joined the Muhlenberg faculty in 2003. "Muhlenberg Admissions has been courting a more diverse student body for years, and it is exciting that we can finally represent that on the stage."
Dwyer's adaptation envisions love blooming one sweltering summer night on a city street in the American Midwest. Two young lovers make an unlikely and courageous connection, a spark that defies distinctions of race, class and culture. But when a black teenager dies, the city's long-simmering tensions escalate into full-scale violence, leaving the lovers on opposite sides in a brutal and deadly conflict.
"Shakespeare's plays truly stand the test of time," Dwyer says. "The story is not only easy for college actors to relate to, but takes on new meaning when placed in a society that is very similar to Staten Island, Ferguson, Madison… or Allentown."
Between July 17 and Aug. 9, four African-American men were killed in the United States. In Staten Island, Eric Garner was seen selling untaxed cigarettes and was smothered in a choke-hold, a method that is prohibited by Staten Island Police. In Beavercreek, Ohio, a black man was shot by police in a Walmart, and in Los Angeles, an unarmed black man was shot by police the next week. In Ferguson, Missouri, in what was the most intensely covered news story of the summer, Michael Brown was shot at twelve times by a local police officer while unarmed.
"My communities were having pointed conversations about the criminalization of black bodies," Dwyer said. "I wanted to explore the socioeconomic structures that coordinate with racial and ethnic privilege." None of the police officers in these incidents was held legally accountable for their actions. These and other recent incidents have escalated racial tensions and widened the rift between the police and the public that they serve, according to Dwyer.
"There has always been something unsettling about how, in the show, Romeo doesn't face any consequences for murdering Tybalt," Dwyer says. "No one in authority seems concerned, and this facet of the play is given more meaning if Tybalt is a man of color." Dwyer's other recent Shakespeare productions at Muhlenberg, "The Winter's Tale" and "The Tempest," both addressed social issues and included actors of non-traditional sexes playing pivotal characters. "The Winter's Tale" raised questions about contemporary marriage, while "The Tempest" explored issues of gender and sexual politics.
This production of "Romeo and Juliet" also features music written by a student composer. Jakeim Hart, '16, worked with Dwyer to being new life to Shakespeare's work through song. Hart previously composed an original musical, "Sinternet!," for the Muhlenberg stage two years ago.
"I am hoping to bring new joy, laughter, and pain to a well-known story through the music that I write," says Hart, who is also playing the role of Paris in the production. "Everyone is the production sings throughout the show, and I also play the guitar."
Muhlenberg College's Theatre & Dance Department offers one of the top-rated college performance programs in the country, according to the Princeton Review rankings. Muhlenberg is a liberal arts college of more than 2,200 students in Allentown, Pa., offering Bachelor of Arts degrees in theatre and dance. It has been named annually among the Fiske Guide to Colleges' top 20 small college programs in the United States.
"Romeo and Juliet" runs April 22-26 in the Studio Theatre, Trexler Pavilion for Theatre & Dance, Muhlenberg College, 2400 Chew St., Allentown. Seating is very limited. Performances are Wednesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 8 p.m. (Sunday's performance was originally scheduled for 2 p.m.; it is at 8 p.m.) Tickets and information are available at 484-664-3333 or www.muhlenberg.edu/theatre&dance.