Ti Ames loves William Shakespeare. Or rather, Ames loves the plays of William Shakespeare.
It’s a love that started when Ames played a fairy in The Tempest at Live Arts at age 9, and it grew when, at 16, Ames became the first black actor to win the English-Speaking Union National Shakespeare Competition in 2012.
Now 23, Ames loves how Shakespeare’s verse feels alive like a heartbeat and its ability to “make people feel something more than they have ever felt” in a single moment.
Ames believes that Shakespeare wrote “to tell the stories that he wanted to tell,” malleable, universal stories that reveal our shared humanity.
With Black Mac, the Charlottesville Players Guild’s original retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in a black aesthetic, which runs through July 29 at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, Ames tells the story that Ames wants to tell.
Shakespeare’s Macbeth is about two Scottish soldiers, Macbeth and Banquo, who upon returning victorious from a battle are given three prophesies by three witches. The witches hail Macbeth as Thane of Cawdor and king; they hail Banquo as the father of kings to come. Throughout the play, Macbeth and his wife, Lady Macbeth, obsess to the point of madness over the prophesies.
Macbeth isn’t Shakespeare’s bloodiest play (that’s Titus Andronicus), but it’s his greatest thriller. Most productions play up the blood, the gore, the ghosts and the madness. Not Black Mac. “This show is about what happens when you let greed take over and you don’t learn from that lesson,” says Ames, who developed Black Mac with guidance from actor, director, writer and Oberlin professor Justin Emeka. It’s less sensational, more embellished reality, performed in the round, with the house lights on and minimal set pieces and costumes.
Eleven black actors play Community Members who are cast in The Community’s annual production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (a clever mirroring of the Charlottesville Players Guild’s mission of fostering a community of black theater artists here in town). A single father and his son are cast as Banquo and his son, Fleance. Two best friends, one who made it out of the hood and one who did not, are cast as Malcolm, son of King Duncan, and Macduff, a soldier. Those members of The Community who Ames says “have told it the most”—black women—are cast as the three witches.
But the actors alone don’t make Black Mac black. “Blackness [influences] the story in every way,” says Ames.
The witches are goddesses dressed in white, three Yoruban Orishas, deities of the Yoruba people of various West African nations.
Lady Macbeth’s famous “unsex me here” monologue is an African dance in which she calls upon her ancestors for strength. Malcolm throws serious shade at Macbeth once he suspects Macbeth has killed King Duncan. The latter is Ames’ way of showing the importance of balancing sadness and humor, something Ames says Shakespeare’s plays—and black people—do both well and out of necessity.
While Ames has changed very few words in the play, it “has been completely reimagined in the black vernacular,” says Black Mac producer Leslie Scott-Jones, who plays the Community Member playing the role of the Orisha Oshun and a few smaller, one-off parts.
“That’s the great thing about working with Shakespeare,” says Scott-Jones. “It is literally a universal language; you can bend it, twist it to your will. Once you understand what’s being said, you can put any spin on it.”
“Surprisingly,” reciting Shakespeare’s verse is “a lot like spitting raps,” says Louis Hampton, who plays the Community Member cast as Macduff. Hampton’s one half of the local hip-hop group The Beetnix, and he says once he got familiar with the message, the meter and the words, it flowed.
Black Mac adds unique significance to one of Macbeth’s most dominant themes. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth want children and cannot have them. This fuels Macbeth’s jealousy of Banquo, a father who is told his descendants will be kings. In Black Mac, it’s not power, money or fame that haunts the couple—it’s the lack of a legacy, says Ames.
“For black people, that’s one of the most important things to us, that we have that history to look back on,” knowing that despite slavery, peonage, Jim Crow and more, black people have been able “to make something beautiful,” says Ames. Without a child, a legacy, Mac (played by David Vaughn Straughn) and Lady Mac (played by Richelle Claiborne) have “nothing to keep them going,” says Ames.
Ames knows that Black Mac is not what most people expect when they think of Shakespeare. That’s the point.
“I want people to start thinking differently about how we do theater. Because this should not be ‘the black version of Macbeth.’ It should be Macbeth. It should be Black Mac. It should be exactly what it is.” And forget what your English teacher might have implied, Ames says, because Shakespeare is for everyone.
Ames hopes audience members will exit the auditorium after the show saying, “I never thought of it like that.”
“No, you didn’t,” Ames would say to them with a smile. “And welcome.”
Jefferson School African-American Heritage Center
Through July 29