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Marcus Gardley’s ‘LEAR’ is a Culturally Rich Re-Imagining of Shakespeare

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The cast of 'LEAR,' the world premiere modern-verse translation of William Shakespeare’s King Lear by playwright and Oakland-native Marcus Gardley, with James A. Williams as King Lear at center.

When King Lear, played by James A. Williams, first appears on stage, he wears a long fur coat. His crown: a black fedora with gold ribbon trim. It’s a distinctly Black regalness that makes you think Teddy Pendergrass, not Anthony Hopkins. The scene is San Francisco’s Fillmore District in 1969–a time of “urban renewal,” which led to gentrification and the upheaval of Black communities.

These are the makings of Marcus Gardley’s LEAR, a modern-verse adaptation of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, about an aging king who mentally comes undone. Gardley, an Obie-winning playwright who was born in Oakland, stays true to the original story and plot line of King Lear but gives it his signature stamp of poetic lyricism steeped in Black culture.

At the intimate yet towering Bruns Amphitheater, the soft sound of crickets is our silence and the starry night sky is our ceiling. The single set, by San Francisco scenic designer Tanya Orellana, is a cream-colored, open-faced two-story house that feels modern yet classic, walking the same line that Gardley does in his text.

Dancers in foreground, actors on second story of modernist style home on stage
The cast of Marcus Gardley’s ‘LEAR.’ (Kevin Berne)

Gardley’s interpretation gives birth to empowered performances across the entire cast, which is co-directed by fellow Oakland-born Dawn Monique Williams, alongside departing CalShakes artistic director, Eric Ting. The Black Queen, played by Verlina Brown, is striking in all white when she narrates the opening of the play, letting the audience know to essentially freak what you heard about that other King Lear. She then seamlessly slips into a beautiful singing voice that returns later in the play for the occasional jazzy interlude.

Acclaimed San Francisco-based jazz musician Marcus Shelby, who wrote the music for LEAR, plays his upright bass in an upper room of the house, alongside Scott Larson on trombone. This subtle but integral sonic backdrop aids the audience in moving from tender moments to funny exchanges to a few violent fight scenes. It also firmly plants the audience in late ’60s Fillmore, a.k.a. the “Harlem of the West.”

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Sam Jackson shines as Lear’s youngest daughter Cordelia and even more so as The Comic, whose styling is reminiscent of Morris Day as she delivers jokes as biting in social commentary as they are funny. That Gardley renames the character “The Comic” instead of Shakespeare’s “The Fool”–Lear’s comedic court jester-slash-adviser–is a small yet noteworthy update. It’s a nod to the role comics often play as truth-tellers in the Black community, and society as a whole.

A Black man in a fedora with a cane sits and smiles
James A. Williams as King Lear in Marcus Gardley’s ‘LEAR,’ at Cal Shakes. (Kevin Berne)

The rousing, closing monologue by Kent, played by Cathleen Riddley in another standout performance, feels like a sermon, offering critiques on the use of power and the treatment of Black women in society. It stirred me and quite a few other Black women in the audience to punctuate the on-stage monologue with a “say it!” when Kent, who’s asked to lead the kingdom following Lear’s death, points out how Black women always seem to be the ones tapped clean up the mess others have left behind (mmhmm!).

As the lights go down and the standing ovation ensues, you don’t feel like you’ve been at a two and a half-hour play–yes, two and a half hours, it’s still Shakespeare after all. Rather, you feel the energy of the performance and the obvious pride and love Gardley and company have for Black culture and Black people, beating warm in your chest.

And it’s a feeling so good, like one audience member told me, you just might want to come back and experience it all over again.

‘LEAR’ plays at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda through Oct. 2, 2022. Details here.

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