Swathed in a mesmerizing tapestry of pop, rock, gospel, and R&B, the fatalistic arc of Lady Macbeth uplifts contemporary thoughts on Black female power, femininity, rage, and desire. This “spellbinding and strikingly original” (Edge Boston) production bubbles with humor and swagger, bringing Lady M’s herstory into the 21st century.
The Klein Theatre
450 7th St NW
Washington, DC 20004
In 1998, the Shakespeare scholar and biographer Stephen Greenblatt attended an event at the White House. Shaking hands with then-president Bill Clinton, he couldn’t help asking him about Macbeth.
“Mr. President,” Greenblatt said, “don’t you think that Macbeth is a great play about an immensely ambitious man who feels compelled to do things that he knows are politically and morally disastrous?” Clinton’s response: “I think Macbeth is a great play about someone whose immense ambition has an ethically inadequate object.”
Though not inspired by this incident, Whitney White’s dazzling Macbeth In Stride explores similar themes. Focusing on the figure of Lady Macbeth, White takes center stage as the strong woman at the heart of the play. In so doing, she allows us to ponder an immensely ambitious woman who desires—and does—disastrous things. The play’s title, glancing at the musical tradition of stride piano, tells us what to prepare for: a musical exploration of Shakespeare’s text. Broadway-ready pop melodies share the stage with rock accents worthy of 90s Seattle. The sinful insinuations of R&B stalk the sacred chords of gospel.
Like a stride piano player, White works in two modes at the same time. Shakespeare’s play sounds the ground notes. His verse provides the rhythmic, poetic, and dramaturgical structure. But White herself, as playwright, composer, and star, takes the leaps of interpretation and melody. As she reminds us, this is a new play lifting up contemporary Black female power, femininity, and desire. The result is more than a new look at Lady Macbeth, or the Macbeths. It is Macbeth In Stride, a new approach to the play and Shakespeare itself.
About that new approach. In Shakespeare’s plays, murder often has a music all its own. In Hamlet, the old king is literally killed through a poison administered through the ear. “I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear,” Iago says in another play, describing his plan to poison Othello’s thoughts through his powers of verbal persuasion. After hearing the virtuous Isabella plead for her brother’s life in Measure for Measure, Angelo refers to the unwitting effect she has had on him. “She speaks, and ’tis such sense, that my sense breeds with it.”
In Macbeth, more than perhaps any other of Shakespeare’s other plays, words have an intoxicating music. Macbeth calls them a “supernatural soliciting,” neither foul nor fair but somehow both at the same time. And the melancholy Thane is one of Shakespeare’s greatest and most unusual creations: a savage killer blessed with an inner life of hallucinatory intensity and some of Shakespeare’s most poetic language.
But the key to the play—the character without whom nothing happens, who wills her man to do the deed—is Lady Macbeth. When we first see her, she is reading a letter. It has “transported me beyond this ignorant present, and I feel now the future in the instant.” This is the Woman in Macbeth In Stride: a formidable figure of the present tense, rendered finally in the present tense.
By Dr. Drew Lichtenberg, Resident Dramaturg, Shakespeare Theatre Company