A unique staging of a Shakespearean tragedy opens with Cleopatra's silhouette commanding attention — a queen in shadow but a queen nonetheless, a subtle hint at the powerful threat her Haiti posed to its slave masters in the 1700s.
Director Tarell Alvin McCraney has set "Antony and Cleopatra" in the colonial Caribbean on the eve of Haiti's revolution against the French — what would become the most successful slave revolt in history, the first to end with the creation of an independent state.
The production is a trans-Atlantic collaboration of the Royal Shakespeare Company in England, Miami's GableStage and The Public Theater in New York. It made its U.S. debut Thursday in Miami Beach.
McCraney is a Miami native and he has transported Shakespeare's ancient Romans and Egyptians to a setting more familiar to him and his South Florida audience. The togas and pyramids evoked by Shakespeare were too far in the past to be relatable, but the themes of colonization, servitude, racial politics and the clash of cultures are alive in a community shaped by waves of immigrants.
"Growing up in Miami in general, all the history of the Caribbean becomes your history in a way. You sort of have to know in order to understand the people you live next to, with, marry, date or befriend, et cetera," McCraney said.
He added, "The word 'empire' means something, if not in our direct history then at least in a sort of not-too-distant memory."
McCraney casts the Roman general and politician Mark Antony as a French general and the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra as a queen in Haiti trying to hold onto her culture.
"Cleopatra is a very strategic, ferocious, manipulative, but exciting and sexy and fun queen," said the actress who plays her, Joaquina Kalukango. "She's very strong and trying to remain independent in a world where everybody is trying to colonize her, whether it's men or other countries."
McCraney, an artistic associate at the Royal Shakespeare Company and an ensemble member of the Steppenwolf Theater Company, has abridged and edited Shakespeare's dialogue, cut the cast to 10 and stripped the stage down to a stone courtyard and a pool. Ripples of light shimmering off the water hint at both Haiti's Caribbean locale and the ocean that comes between Antony and Cleopatra for much of the play.
The play's action takes place over a decade and makes dizzying jumps from one ancient capital to another. Live music and dances performed by the actors help remind the audience where a scene is taking place. For example, in Antony's return to France, they perform a formal ballet in military attire.
Ancient Egyptian mythology has been replaced by elements of Haitian Vodou rituals, and one of Antony's French soldiers evolves into Baron Samedi, the Vodou guardian of the dead. Some scholars have remarked that the spectacular suicides that close the play can seem like the exhilarating beginning of a new story as well as an ending, and with the appearance of the top hat-wearing god to reunite the doomed lovers, McCraney's interpretation of "Antony and Cleopatra" does imply that the drama continues.
It wasn't a stretch to anchor the play in revolutionary Haiti, said Gelan Lambert, the play's choreographer and another Miami native.
"You have an instance where one of the characters can remind you of Napoleon. You have Enobarbus, who can give you a hint of (Haitian hero) Toussaint Louverture. We know that generals fell in love or had sexual relations with the Africans that were working on the plantations. So, it's all very plausible," Lambert said.
Updating the setting to a time when Haiti was a French colony amplifies the tension between Antony and Cleopatra's legendary romance and the historical power plays that tore them apart, McCraney said. At the same time, the play provides a new way to explore Haiti's history.
"There's more questions than comments, you know what I mean?" McCraney said. "Questions like, when Napoleon sent his brother-in-law to quell the uprising, what did he expect?"
He continues through a list of questions about France's failure to suppress its Haitian slaves, the geopolitical isolation of post-revolution Haiti, its sometimes stuttering attempts at democracy and its tense relationship even now with the country that shares its island, the Dominican Republic.
"The legacy (of Haiti's revolution) doesn't escape and why is that? Where does that come from ... and who won?"
McCraney's "Antony and Cleopatra" debuted in England in November. It will run at the Colony Theater in Miami Beach through Feb. 9 and then move to New York.