Mourning the losses: CPG processes grief and transformation in a recut of Hamlet

Leslie Scott-Jones, Ray Smith, and David Vaughn Straughn star in Hambone, the Charlottesville Players Guild’s Afro-futurist adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Photo by Cara Walton Leslie Scott-Jones, Ray Smith, and David Vaughn Straughn star in Hambone, the Charlottesville Players Guild’s Afro-futurist adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Photo by Cara Walton

Let’s pretend for a minute. It’s sometime in the not-too-distant future. Charlottesville is a thriving black kingdom, free of the white gaze and white corruption, and comprised of various hamlets, including Vinegar Hill, Starr Hill, and between them, Gospel Hill, the kingdom’s seat and center of spirituality.

Such is the premise of Hambone, an original, Afro-futurist telling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet by local all-black theater troupe the Charlottesville Players Guild.

You know how Hamlet goes: King Hamlet has died. His son, Prince Hamlet, returns home to mourn, only to find that Queen Gertrude has taken up with the dead king’s brother, Claudius. The king’s ghost visits Hamlet with a message: Claudius killed him, and young Hamlet must avenge his death. In the process, young Hamlet goes mad (or does he?).

And while the play is technically fiction, much of what Hambone delves into in the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center auditorium is real.

The Charlottesville Players Guild’s desire to rework Hamlet came about during the troupe’s summer 2018 Macbeth adaptation, Black Mac. The cast became particularly interested in familial relationships among those characters, and Hamlet came up as another play rife with family drama.

The troupe decided to make Hamlet into “the ultimate black family drama,” one that showcases “the spectrum of black family,” says Leslie Scott-Jones, CPG’s creative director who adapted the script and also plays Queen Gertrude. Director Shelby Marie Edwards chose to focus the production on grief, specifically “the way grief is looked at from the African continuum.”

“One of the ways we incorporate an African aesthetic is how the characters deal with death, how we frame death within the show,” says Edwards. “I don’t want to give away too much, but it’s not like they die and that’s it,” she says, because in the African diaspora, one’s ancestors are always present. It’s not life and death, Edwards explains, but rather “life, death, and transformation.” Take King Hamlet’s ghost—whose message for his son drives much of the plot­—as just one example.

When Hamlet/Hambone (played by David Vaughn Straughn) so famously asks in his soliloquy, “To be, or not to be?,” he contemplates life and death. But in Hambone, it’s less a question of physicality and more one of spirituality: Will he accept grief as a part of life and continue on, not just breathing but actually living? Or will he allow grief to consume his soul and render him essentially lifeless?

What’s in a name?

Why call this adaptation Hambone? Some folks might know “hambone” as an African American style of dance that involves slapping one’s own body to create a rhythm (it’s also called the Juba dance, or, originally, the Pattin’ Juba). But it was also used as a derogatory term for black performers. “So, that’s the perfect name for this [production], because [Hamlet] performs madness for certain people to elicit a response,” says Leslie Scott-Jones, who adapted the script. “It’s also a commentary on code-switching.”

Many of the CPG’s creative choices for Hambone add new and interesting layers. They meld African American vernacular English with Shakespeare’s early modern English. Ivan Orr has composed an original soundtrack —which he describes as hip-hop as it might sound in the future —that helps establish the mood and propel the story forward.

Horatio, Hamlet’s best friend, typically staged as a man, is a woman, and Hamlet is in love with her, despite the fact that he’s betrothed to Ophelia. His friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are also women. That could explain Hamlet/Hambone’s intuition, and why he can communicate with his father’s spirit, says Scott-Jones. And what does all that say about Hamlet/Hambone’s relationship with his mother, Gertrude?

King Hamlet and Claudius are twins (both played by Ray Smith)—which raises new questions (and probably a few eyebrows) about Gertrude’s hasty marriage to Claudius, itself complicated by the fact that in this production, Gertrude is pregnant. And that raises all sorts of questions about heirs and future kings.

David Vaughn Straughn plays the title role in Hambone. Photo by Cara Walton

The CPG has also added a griot, “an African storyteller who holds wisdom,” explains Edwards, a role played by Brenda Brown-Grooms, a local pastor renowned for her sermons. Brown-Grooms grew up in Charlottesville, and her family attended one of the black churches located on Gospel Hill.

This is yet another way in which the substance of Hambone is quite real, particularly for Charlottesville’s African American communities. Gospel Hill and Vinegar Hill are physically gone from present-day Charlottesville, majority black neighborhoods razed by the city in the mid-20th century in the name of “urban renewal.” And Starr Hill, another such neighborhood, is starting to disappear, too, thanks to gentrification (and, it can be said, the whiteness that the Charlottesville imagined in Hambone has managed to escape).

While these neighborhoods are physically gone, their presence remains—in people, stories, photographs, in Hambone, and in grief. Black Charlottesvillians still mourn these losses. These neighborhoods lived, they died, and now they are transformed.

“I want to have a real, cathartic moment on stage,” says Edwards, one that can work in service of transformation for actors and audience alike. “I always want the audience to leave a little bit more healed than when they began,” she says. “I want the audience to un-learn any conceptions, consciously or unconsciously, they might have about what people in black bodies can do.”

See Hambone, the Charlottesville Players Guild’s Afro-futurist adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center August 22 through September 1.

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I personally would love to see these talented actors and actresses perform. It’s unfortunate that this article presumes that certain people are giving a “gaze” or are corrupt because they are from a certain race. However, I love the work that the Jefferson School is doing. The opening salvo of this article impedes our community from healing and uniting and is absolutely intended to bring conflict where none is warranted. Let’s just bring good arts and productive dialogue to our community.