Director Kenny Leon and Danielle Brooks Bring Blackness to Shakespeare in the Park

The Shakespeare in the Park production of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Kenny Leon, in New York City’s Central Park.
Photo: Joan Marcus (The Public Theater)

As actor Danielle Brooks sings and shines as Beatrice in director Kenny Leon’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, the director can’t help but feel pride in his vision of staging an all-black production in the famed Shakespeare in the Park coming to fruition.

Running through this final weekend on June 23 in New York City, the production features the beautiful, charming Brooks in a light that black women—let alone a gorgeous, full-figured black woman of a lovely dark hue—rarely get to see themselves in. She’s the star. She’s the romantic lead. She has the comedic chops and the sparkling vocals. She has the wit. She defends her friend. She gets her man in the end. And there’s a happily ever after—or as happy as you can get in a play set during a future “war” outside Atlanta, Ga.

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“Danielle Brooks was the first woman who came to mind,” Leon said to The Root of his choice of Beatrice. “I knew she went to Juilliard. I knew that she was representing plus-size women with these designers. I knew that it would be amazing for a plus-size woman to play Beatrice.

“[She] is the real truth. She should be everybody’s leading lady. She should be playing romantic leads in these films. Darker than any Beatrice and bigger than any Beatrice they’ve seen, but she’s one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever met, inside and out.”

Outside of Brooks, Leon admitted he couldn’t come up with another actress like her “who could handle the language, was funny and had a great singing voice.” Leon revealed that to portray the role, the actor best known for Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black turned down a movie role.

Chuck Cooper, Director Kenny Leon, and LaWanda Hopkins in rehearsal for Much Ado About Nothing.
Photo: Joan Marcus (The Public Theater)
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And it was a delight for New Yorkers that she did. Leon’s production of the Shakespearean comedy radiates with her presence. But Leon didn’t just stop at tweaking with Shakespeare in the casting of Brooks. With an entirely black ensemble toting a political message, Leon set out to make a statement. On stage, a banner hangs saying “Stacey Abrams 2020,” and the cast sings songs such as our Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” In this rendition, the soldiers returning from a war, as described by Shakespeare, are carrying political signs about love and equality.

“With [Shakespeare’s] comedies you have a chance to slide into the political agenda of Shakespeare,” Leon said to The Root. “Love and laughter, protecting those values in society resonated with me.”

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Leon said he originally tried to put Shakespeare’s “war” in a modern context, thinking of recent American wars like Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam, but decided none of these settings made sense. Then, he thought about today’s charged political environment and decided this would be a future war our characters would be contending with.

“Given what’s happening in our country, it would probably be a war in the future,” Leon said. “Then the idea came to me that it would be on American soil and what kind of war. It couldn’t just be men coming from war, but men and women coming from war.”

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The original play is set in Aragon, Italy—Leon noticed that there is an Aragon, Georgia, which made him excited as he began to build a future world of Shakespeare, involving the home of Leonato (played by Chuck Cooper), a “pretty wealthy guy” in Aragon, which Leon imagined as having a significant black middle class. Therefore the character of Leonato, whose home is where all the action of the play takes place, had to be black as well. And soon, with this Georgia setting, Leon had the raison d’etre to have an all-black cast.

“We went from a multicultural idea to the community needed to be all black,” Leon said. “And if you make it all black you have a chance of people really understanding what you’re saying. You can relay universal messages to the hearts of all Americans. Before the audience can formulate, think black people can’t deliver Shakespeare, let me get rid of all the myths right away before the actors hit the stage.”

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While the play is closing this weekend, Leon is hoping there will be a way even more New Yorkers can witness his vision, telling The Root there is some talk about extending the play or moving the production to another venue, but those talks are very preliminary; nothing is concrete.

As for the talented Leon, he’s looking forward to seeing his production of the hit Broadway play, American Son, starring Kerry Washington, come to Netflix on November 1 of this year.

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“Kerry taught me about the black woman’s presence in everything we do,” Leon said, adding that as a “woke heterosexual male, I want to keep growing. To hear the voice of black women and how we should protect them and give them voice .… I want to be a better black man in America and a better black male artist.”

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About the author

Danielle C. Belton

Editor-in-Chief of The Root. Nerd. AKA "The Black Snob."