Sometimes a play written for a specific cultural moment recedes into the future, awaiting the time for it to be rediscovered. And when it returns, it remains so compelling that it is as if it had just been written for our own challenging political moment.
Based upon, and reflecting on the legacy of, Shakespeare’s famous island idyll The Tempest, Martinique author Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête (A Tempest) is enjoying a spirited revival at Staunton’s American Shakespeare Center. Directed with an unsparing gaze at our past (and present) by Dawn Monique Williams, it is as raw and as urgently human as it was when first produced in the 1960s. And if this razor-sharp production is any indication, Césaire’s play should be receiving revivals across the country in very short order.
This fall, the American Shakespeare Center season features a repertoire of plays focused on reconciliation, but a reconciliation that can come only through a clear-eyed look at our theatrical and historical past. Une Tempête is paired with a brilliant and thought-provoking production of Shakespeare’s original play, The Tempest, which features the same characters.
This means that theatergoers at the ASC have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see two seminal plays in direct conversation with each other, and the results are rich indeed. (See below for links to my review of The Tempest as well as my review of the joyous, hilarious production of Shakespeare’s Pericles, which rounds out this fall’s repertory.)
Writing during the 1960s, at the height of African decolonization and the American Civil Rights Movement, Césaire invites us to see Shakespeare’s encounter between Prospero and Caliban from the perspective of those who, in the years after Shakespeare’s time, were forced into servitude. Given Césaire’s own West African roots, it’s hardly surprising to find the focus in Une Tempête is on an explicitly colonial master-slave relationship.
There are historical updates galore—for the autocratic Prospero (given more than his due by Blackfriars veteran James Keegan), his book-learning is converted from a mere eccentricity to a direct challenge of the Catholic Church’s authority, along the lines of a Galileo or a Luther. There is also a bit of inside humor, as Keegan’s Prospero also boasts a director’s megaphone—a reminder that actors have been colonized and forced to work for autocrats of their own for years.
The linchpin of Une Tempête, however, is Tevin Davis’s performance as Caliban, a role he reprises in the ASC’s production of The Tempest here as well. Emerging through the stage’s trap door, Davis is dressed as a member of the West African elite, with a headdress topped off by cowrie shells—the ultimate status symbol from a region associated with numerous legendary African kingdoms. Caliban’s first line is the word uhuru (Swahili for “freedom”), a reminder that were Caliban a historical figure, he would have had his own language, history, and culture long before Europeans arrived. His rejection of the name, and his insistence on being referred to by “X,” brings the radical side of Prospero’s rule sharply into focus.
Césaire has a truly biting wit, which sweetens his lesson and creates enough room for productive reflection—with quite a few good belly laughs along the way. The immortal, drunken comedy duo of Stefano and Trinculo is played here with shameless audacity by Erica Cruz Hernández and Annabelle Rollison. This pair are an absolute show-stopper, and Caliban’s reaction to these stoned and clueless European interlopers is priceless.
A centerpiece of the play, apart from Caliban’s eloquent demands for respect, is an argument he has with Ariel about how to push back against Prospero’s despotism. Césaire makes a point of having Ariel played by a biracial actress—a reminder of the mingling of races in the Americas, and the complex racial hierarchy that developed in its wake. Two approaches to colonialism and bigotry meet in these two characters, with Ariel emphasizing civility and an appeal to conscience, while Caliban (“X”) argues for a resort to radical violence (giving as good as you get, in other words).
There is, of course, the titular storm that brings even more Europeans to the island, and there is, of course, the expected romance between Miranda and the shipwrecked Ferdinand (a purely European match). But throughout their courtship, their privileged position is understood and foregrounded; and Césaire has a surprise in store for us, when he changes the ending of the play in a manner more suited to the actual history of the Caribbean where he was born and raised.
Another delicious plot twist comes when the fabled Wedding Masque, with which Prospero entertains the (European) newlyweds, is interrupted by the arrival of Eshu (Brandon Carter), the snake-handling Yoruba trickster spirit, who—well, it’s his island, after all—overpowers the Roman ones Shakespeare usually trots out.
The musical pre-show, as always, has its share of classic hits (“What a Wonderful World,” “Blackbird”) but also features songs more attuned to the mood of Césaire’s piece. Brandon Carter’s rendition of Nina Simone’s “I Ain’t Got No, I Got Life” truly sets the tone for the performance to come, speaking as it does to the ordeal of systemic deprivation combined with a fierce determination to survive.
At a time when teachers across the Commonwealth of Virginia are being intimidated by a phone line dedicated to “outing” them for teaching the complex truths of our history, the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton is taking a firm stand for truth—truth in our telling of history, and truth in our art. And where better to start than to focus on a Shakespeare classic, set in the Americas, through the lens of Aimé Césaire. His play, part tribute, part wry commentary, has once again found its audience.
Une Tempête plays only through November 19, in repertory with The Tempest and Pericles. Get busy, and get tickets!
Running Time: One hour 45 minutes, without intermission.
Une Tempête, a part of American Shakespeare Center’s Actor’s Renaissance Season, plays through November 19, 2022, in repertory with The Tempest and Pericles. All performances are at the Blackfriars Playhouse, 10 South Market Street, Staunton, VA. For information and tickets ($27–$60, with an option to sign up for the pay-what-you-will club), visit americanshakespearecenter.com.
Credits for Une Tempête are online here (click on “cast” and on “artistic team”).
COVID Safety: American Shakespeare Center strongly encourages patrons to mask when possible. ASC’s complete COVID-19 Safety Visitor’s Guide is here.
A vision of ‘The Tempest’ for all, in rep at American Shakespeare Center
A vividly hilarious ‘Pericles,’ in rep at American Shakespeare Center
(reviews by Andrew Walker White, November 4, 2022)