Outdoor theater in the parks is one of our city’s purest traditions: professional, often gorgeous performances, free and accessible to all. Certainly in the current mid-to-late-pandemic season, these open-air productions provide a lifeline to a reawakening civic commons. At the Classical Theatre of Harlem, the gathering — always so sacred — has taken on an even more intense sense of mission. For years, CTH’s Uptown Shakespeare in the Park has resided at the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater in Marcus Garvey Park, presenting works from the European canon, including Antigone, Romeo and Juliet, and The Bacchae. This summer, though, producing artistic director Ty Jones has put up a new classic, Will Power’s Seize the King, a contemporary verse play built on old bones.
In plays like Flow and The Seven, Power established a hip-hop theater tradition that grows in influence year after year. With Seize the King, he engages an older lyric strategy, slicing through contemporary culture to show its sedimentary underlayers. Power’s often comic drama follows roughly the same story as Shakespeare’s Richard III — a wicked duke tries to murder his way to the crown — and he tells it using metered, heightened language. But he’s also yoked the galloping Elizabethan lyric to modern concerns. As Power says, once a freestyle MC gets the rhythm, “they can kind of flow around it.”
In this hybrid zone that’s half Plantagenet, half our world, a queen may muse about her ascent to power by saying, “Why, I might choose me, that’s a thought / Why not? Have I not half the council in my bra strap?” or a snooty aristocrat will note that “I once saw a Woodville eating sushi / With a fork.” It’s also a familiar place where the killing weight of the insecure state bears down on a Black child. Though Power’s play predates the George Floyd uprisings and the January MAGA insurrection, its portrait of a man who won’t not be king seems predictive. Still, “this is not Trump walking around on stage,” Power says. “It’s more like, Who are we as a species? And how do we deal with these different energies that have always existed?”
The play’s director, Carl Cofield (who is also the associate artistic director of CTH), says, “We try to be a theater company that is in conversation with the world around us and the Harlem community,” and he notes the intentional way the performance stimulates conversation about the rhetoric of those who claim to serve. It’s not just a play for 2021; it’s the play that Cofield sees helping redefine the whole notion of “classical.” In staking out a new pantheon, one built and inhabited by living Black writers, CTH plans to seize first the king, then the canon. “That’s where we are in a global reckoning, an artistic reckoning,” he says. “And that’s something that Classical Theatre of Harlem has been really trying to drill down into. What makes something stand the test of time?”
Seize the King is in Marcus Garvey Park through July 29.