Though the Bard wrote Hamlet sometime on the cusp of the 17th century, Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s minimal, grayscale revival has plenty to say about contemporary masculinity and race.
With Black men as both King and Prince Hamlet, this particular production draws upon the concept of a legacy interrupted and destroyed by racialized violence. The show begins with a son singing at his father’s grave while his mother, a woman of color, gets intimate with a white man. Maurice Jones stars as the doomed prince, offering a performance that feels less like a melancholy Dane and more like Bigger Thomas. As systemic, familial oppression triggers bursts of violence, the production is careful not to excuse Hamlet’s behavior, especially his treatment of Ophelia (Rachel Nicks), another woman of color.
Of course, Hamlet is surrounded by well-meaning white friends who can’t fully understand why he’s falling apart, but they stick around as long as they believe they can repair him. It’s also important to note that Claudius, the king’s brother and murderer, is played by Tim Decker, who oozes around the stage like a Wall Street villain. If you’re familiar with the plot, you know that Queen Gertrude, played by Karen Aldridge, fell in love with Claudius and the two plotted together to kill off Hamlet’s father. In this production, there’s a suggestion of internalized racism, as if Gertrude is trying to purge her Blackness by offing it.
Director Barbara Gaines gives us the truth of Hamlet in a context all too familiar to Chicago: Here is a man ripped from his heritage, plummeting into a tragic destiny with sparse options. There’s a method to the madness indeed. v