The vision of Romeo & Juliet that will come to life on the YoungArts plaza Friday evening is tailor-made for Miami, with cocktails, b-boys and ballet dancers, a splash of multimedia and a welcoming attitude for those who drift in on Miami time.
Director Tarell Alvin McCraney means no disrespect for the immortal bard or his famous tale of star-crossed lovers. Rather, he aims to convey Shakespeare in a style innate to Miami: wandering outdoors under the stars with a drink in hand, watching (and maybe joining) a performance that’s part of a larger event.
“Miami is used to a promenade idea — we have esplanades everywhere,” McCraney says. “We like to be outside, we like to have vendors, we like to be part of the performance.
“We have the luxury of being outside — that’s our curse and our cure. So how do we use that to have these experiences? How is our community already expressing itself?”
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McCraney’s Romeo & Juliet is the latest in the YoungArts foundation’s Outside the Box series, on the wide plaza of its Biscayne Boulevard campus north of downtown. The goals of the series are to mark YoungArts as a lively part of the Miami arts scene and bring in a broader audience, part of a larger effort to expand the group’s mission and programming beyond the weeklong gatherings for talented teenage artists it holds in Miami, New York and Los Angeles.
Outside the Box was created by Esther Park-Clemetson, YoungArts’ director of campus programming. The title is a play on the Jewelbox, the name of the cube-shaped, stained-glass covered structure on the plaza, and on the series’ bold ethos.
“The literal term is we’re outside the box, and the theme is to do innovative outside-the-box programming,” Park-Clemetson says. “We encourage different experimental multidisciplinary productions. We want people to say, ‘I’ve never seen that before.’”
Previous events included a multimedia “theme park” and carnival conceived by Borscht Film Festival founders Lucas Leyva and Andrew Hevia (both YoungArts alumni) in December, and one combining jazz music and Langston Hughes’ revolutionary poetry last month.
When Park-Clemetson approached McCraney to do a Shakespeare event, he didn’t want to do a traditional outdoor staging, a la New York’s famous Shakespeare in the Park series. Raised in Liberty City, the 34-year-old Miami-born playwright, actor and director attended New World School of the Arts, spent two years as playwright-in-residence at London’s Royal Shakespeare Company and was a 2013 MacArthur “genius grant” winner.
In recent years, his Shakespeare adaptations have been done in South Florida. His set-in-Haiti production of Antony and Cleopatra played Miami Beach, New York and London. And his condensed Hamlet ran at GableStage as well as being done for Miami-Dade school students. Next spring he’ll collaborate with Miami City Ballet on the troupe’s production of choreographer George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Romeo & Juliet is a much more radical effort, however. Half the cast are traditional actors; the rest are hybrid performers or dancers. Three are from Miami City Ballet, which performed the John Cranko ballet Romeo and Juliet last fall; Charlie Chizo and Rudi Goblen (also a playwright and actor) are from Flipside Kings, a renowned Miami break dance crew; others are members of companies run by Miami’s Rosie Herrera and Peter London.
The play will unfold around the plaza, via Shakespeare’s text, dance, music and other media. Some scenes will take place simultaneously, and one will happen at an outdoor cocktail bar. Instead of an actor declaiming the prologue, there will be a collage of Romeo & Juliet media snippets, created by Hevia. People can buy drinks and food on the plaza and join the two-hour performance for as long or as little as they like.
“We had to design the show so that people could arrive in waves,” says Hevia, who is designing and coordinating the production. “So it’s possible to enjoy the show while getting a drink and not miss everything, but not interfere with the enjoyment of people who are more committed.”
The idea, says McCraney, was to create a quintessentially Miami version of the play, from its performers — “b-boys and modern dancers and actors who participate in drag shows” — to the immersive presentation, taking inspiration from the energy of crowds that gather at Wynwood Walls and Miami’s many art fairs and street festivals.
“Rather than trying to have [the performers] participate in some kind of ornate Elizabethan production ... we are repurposing it for our space and giving an experiential taste of what Shakespeare was after,” McCraney says. “You should be eating and drinking and interacting with the performers. That’s the hope. If you’re sitting somewhere waiting quietly for the performance to end, that would be half the job not done.”
He has a long history with several of the performers. He and Goblen were both teenage members of director-playwright Teo Castellanos’ hip-hop theater group D Projects, performing at halfway houses and rehab centers. McCraney and Herrera performer Luis Cuevas did guerrilla street dance shows on Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road as teenagers. Now the director is bringing his street performance roots to bear on his traditional Shakespeare experience.
“My job is not to hamper that with all I’ve learned abroad, but to come and see how they interact,” he says. “Not to come and say this is how it should be done, but to say this is how we are already speaking this language, how can we use that as a passport to other experiences?”
While his concept may seem sacrilegious to those who believe you need to focus on the entire play to truly experience Shakespeare, McCraney says his show has much in common with the playwright’s origins. Shakespeare wrote plays around his actors. His audiences used to get drunk, comment on the action and throw coins and food at actors they didn’t like. And British audiences continue those traditions, McCraney says.
“I’ve seen that demonized, ‘Oh Miami, the party culture, people like to be outside and drinking,’” McCraney says. “They like to drink in England, too — they just do it in the theater. They walk in with their wine and beer and sit right there and watch a play and get hammered and love it. And they’re praised for it.”
More broadly, Romeo and Juliet is an effort by McCraney and YoungArts to bring a younger, larger, more diverse audience to an institution operating in two towers on an empty plaza, and to a playwright who defines traditional theater.
“Now that we’re able to open the space up to the community, it’s refreshing, a new era,” says Park-Clemetson.
The Langston Hughes performance drew 400 people, more than two-thirds of whom were new to YoungArts.
McCraney doesn’t dispute that his Romeo & Juliet won’t have the same dramatic impact as a full-scale traditional production. Instead, he says, it offers a different way to experience Shakespeare, and Miami.
“When I was a kid sometimes they would shut down the street for a party,” he says. “You know that street, all the places on it, but they would seem different. That experience is powerful. It’s not a theater experience, but a theatrical one.”