Soul Searching: The Black Rep examines Romeo and Juliet through the prism of the inner-city Sixties

Picture Romeo (Nic Few) as a heroic Marvin Gaye — a sensitive, masculine lover who scribbles love poems in his notebook and then recites them passionately while his laughing friends crack on his ridiculous ass. Picture Juliet (Sharisa Whatley) as a fresh-faced beauty whose coming-out party is the social event of the season, a daughter of the Real Housewife of Verona and the hardest man in town.

Director Chris Anthony sets Shakespeare's tragic lovers in the inner city of the 1960s, complete with a Motown look and sound, and in doing so breathes spectacular, pulsating life into Romeo and Juliet. Anthony's close attention to the script teases out the most beautiful details of character and plot, underlining the destructive nature of the internecine warfare between Capulet and Montague — and the devastation of black-on-black crime.

Mercutio (Chauncy Thomas) is a street-fighting man tormented by his vivid memories of a recent war, a damaged youth who laughs at life because death is ever-present. His nemesis Tybalt (Tim Norman) has no such imagination and no remorse, and so he fights ruthlessly for pride, or street cred, or simply because he can. The duels are brawls, ugly fistfights that are settled by a single switchblade that passes from hand to hand and is always sheathed in the bosom of the person who touched it last.

Sharisa Whatley and Nic Few in the Black Rep's Romeo and Juliet.
Stewart Goldstein
Sharisa Whatley and Nic Few in the Black Rep's Romeo and Juliet.

Details

Romeo and Juliet
Through February 14 at the Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square.
Tickets are $17 to $43.
Call 314-534-3810 or visit www.theblackrep.org.

Anthony pays equal attention to the theme of love. Romeo ain't too proud to beg during the famous balcony scene, and Juliet is delighted to discover how easy it is to toy with her lusty suitor. When they finally kiss, Romeo whoops slyly and Juliet beams — her first kiss the greatest kiss ever stolen by man or woman. But there are other forms of love, and they are developed magnificently. The Prince of the City (Drummond Crenshaw), his dead kinsman at his feet, breaks down slowly while swinging his baseball bat to silence the mob as anger becomes grief, and then anger again. Mighty Capulet (Ron Himes), formerly a raging bull, is a shattered husk in the presence of his daughter's corpse, a whispering, voiceless man whose joy and pride are completely snuffed.

The Black Rep's production of Romeo and Juliet justifies the play's stature, and maybe burnishes it as well; this is the production you'll measure every other staging against.

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