Diversifying the Classics | Radio Free Shakespeare: Richard II on WNYC
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Radio Free Shakespeare: Richard II on WNYC

Robin Kello

The realm is troubled. Its people speak of murder, corruption, and the swift decline of a nation known to conquer others but which has now conquered itself. The man on the throne is equally insensitive to the needs of the masses as to any elite counsel that would question his self-serving and erratic decisions. Surrounded by flatterers and oblivious to his own monumental missteps, Richard’s “rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last,” Gaunt (Dakin Matthews) tells us, but what new society might be built on the ruins of a failed state remains uncertain. 

Such are the stakes of Richard II, recently directed as a radio play by Saheem Ali and produced in collaboration with WNYC and the Public Theater. Originally intended for New York’s annual Shakespeare in the Park at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater, the show had to be reimagined due to the pandemic. With a cast led by André Holland in the title role and consisting predominantly of actors of color, this powerful production highlights the political resonance of Shakespeare’s text while also offering tight, podcast-sized episodes, featuring commentary and conversation with New Yorker critic Vinson Cunningham, scholars Ayanna Thompson and James Shapiro, and the cast. In this show dedicated to Black Lives Matter, Ali and WNYC meet both the technical and cultural challenges of the moment, offering an example of how classical theater can resound in the uneasy summer of 2020. 

Choosing to forego the familiar squares of the Zoom screen and its attendant issues—the frozen face, the mic switched off, the mistimed entrance—the radio drama heightens the audience’s attention to language, allowing us to truly “hear” the play, as Elizabethan theatergoers said. Lupita Nyongo’s narration centers the narrative in the struggle for power and keeps those of us foggy on our English kings from rushing to Wikipedia for family trees. Without the trappings of costume, so often designed for a strained period concept or stuffed facsimile of early practices, the voices of the actors drive the dramatic action. Ali eschews the imposition of accent or awkward elocution to signify “Shakespeare,” and the main actors, Holland and Miriam A. Hyman (Bolingbroke) speak with an American voice. 

As the country experiences a reckoning with racial violence and interrogates its inherited structures of power, the conversations that punctuate the radio performance continually engage the question of “why now?” At a time when it is imperative to amplify Black voices, why do Shakespeare again and again? Ali provides one answer in the casting, telling Cunningham that once he had Holland for the title role, he knew the only person he would want to see take power from a Black man would be a Black woman, and thus cast Hyman as Bolingbroke. At the beginning of the second episode, Thompson says: “I have left this production feeling like Black Americans should be the ones doing Shakespeare. You’re welcome, America, again.” 

Despite the pandemic, Shakespeare will be fine, and Ali’s Richard II provides a model of how it might sound when freed from stage traditions. Joseph Papp, founder of the Public Theater, imagined free Shakespeare as a “tribute to democracy,” and this production continues that legacy by providing the show to many more people than could ever make it Central Park on a July evening. Why not continue Free Shakespeare on the Radio, even when we can return to the park, or produce other free podcasts of classical theater? How might we continue to seek new ways to diversify the classics? 

Shakespeare will be fine, but the rest is, of course, far less certain. At the end of the play, Hyman’s Bolingbroke decides to embark on pilgrimage to cleanse the usurper’s bloody hands of the death of a king. Instead of ending this drama bookended by murders with Shakespeare’s lines, however, the final words of this production come from Nyongo’s narrator, who leaves us with a question: Has justice been served?

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