‘King Lear’ adapted by Marcus Gardley at California Shakespeare Theatre through Oct. 2

King-Lear-by-Marcus-Gardley-still-3-1400x931, ‘King Lear’ adapted by Marcus Gardley at California Shakespeare Theatre through Oct. 2, Culture Currents
All the men are fools – well, all the men with power and money.

by Wanda Sabir, Arts & Culture Editor

When Marcus Gardley’s wonderful adaptation of “Lear” by William Shakespeare opens, the playwright cautions the audience to forget what they know about the play because his “Lear” disrupts the narrative, invites the disenfranchised in to shake the foundations of the West, erase geographies and set new authority in the land. 

This land happens to be the San Francisco Bay Area, specifically, Lear’s castle in the Fillmore, another parcel in Albany and Rockridge in Oakland. In a free verse opening pageantry the Black jetsetters establish their reign – more, their right to reign. Everyone is dressed to the nines, even the servants show up proper. In this world premiere folks buckle up for the ride, unless these are yo’ peoples and you’re used to holding onto wings and tails.

Co-directed by Dawn Monique Williams and Eric Ting, Cal Shakes artistic director (his final production too), the work, which concludes this Sunday, certainly deserved a standing ovation. I followed the crowd down the hill to my car and waited for the traffic jam to subside. As I stood talking to my companion, Destiny, Harpist from the ‘Hood, and Criswell Muhammad walked by. 

Of course, I called out a greeting – I hadn’t seen the lovely couple in three years. I don’t get out much anymore and, well, it was so nice to see them. One of the many gifts of theatre is its role as convener. There were sprinklings of Black folks in the meadow. I would have loved to hear what the fathers and daughters thought of “Lear.”

For those who enjoy character and story – it’s what we do – we, the people, we, the human family Gardley’s “Lear” connects to “Dem Bones … Dem Dry Bones.” We are born, script in hand, writing our lives. Pencils ready and erasers too, we decide which material stays and cut what we decide is unnecessary, like King Lear (actor James A. Williams) does, when in grief and sorrow he makes a big mistake and almost loses his mind trying to right an error which like a rip in fabric runs away. 

Williams as Lear takes up space in the story – he fills the stage and then shrinks as he is chiseled and challenged by those he loves. Just as the absence of love can erode one’s person, love is also the medicine which heals what is broken. 

Sometimes a person gets another chance 

In Gardley’s “Lear,” we meet a Black man, King Lear, recently widowed with three lovely daughters, Cordelia (Sam Jackson), Goneril (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) and Regan (Emma Van Lare). Grieving, the aged king wants to feel needed by his daughters. When his favorite and youngest child’s declaration is found wanting, Cordelia is tossed from her home and her sisters are given their father’s kingdom. 

It’s a bad move, because once the two elder daughters have everything, they toss away the old man like a wet rag. He is too much trouble; imagine his retinue is 100 knights! The daughters tell him he needs to cut it down to 4-5. Too many mouths to feed and beds to make ready. 

These three powerful Black women actors are magnificent in these roles. It is unbelievably real. I was aghast! How could they treat their father like this? How could they betray their marriage vows? How could their husbands be so gullible?

Older sisters, Goneril and Regan are regal in their mischief and madness. There seems to be no end to their scheming. They are loyal to no one. They love no one except themselves. However, ruthlessness meets its match in Edmund (Jomar Tagatac). 

Yet, they are beautiful, witty and cunning. They take after pops, who admires them as he fears for his life. Each woman’s strength is both a gift and, here, a curse. The two conspirators immediately cease their pretense to care as dad is shuffled between their two homes like so much chattel. The sisters laugh at their younger sister, whom they say didn’t know how to play the game and loses her family and her home.

Notes are passed and intercepted. The king goes mad and sees ghosts, while his age-mate Gloucester (Michael J. Asberry) believes ill of his legitimate son, Edgar (Dane Troy), who loves him. Gloucester’s outside child, Edmund, wants his father’s wealth and power. Dad’s love would be OK too, but liquidated power – land and rank, wealth, is a greater consolation prize for Edmund – who is moving across the board – mate and check as he beds the king’s daughters to victory. 

King-Lear-by-Marcus-Gardley-still-2-1400x931, ‘King Lear’ adapted by Marcus Gardley at California Shakespeare Theatre through Oct. 2, Culture Currents
Lear’s women are in charge, perhaps because they know intimately systemic racism, sexism and class dynamics and how to place these systems in opposition to one another to their advantage.

Senility might be a theme here, old men who are easily duped, but we’re talking King Lear – all hail – and his friend, the mighty Gloucester?! It can’t be age. The king is 80, but he is sharp, alert until his ego gets the better of him. Is ill judgment a byproduct of a questioning heart, a heart that listens to whisperers of evil who drop poison in serving dishes or cups, sweetened with their bitterness or greed? These “smiling faces” set traps which ensnare these elder statesmen with lies that strangle. 

All the men are fools – well, all the men with power and money. Even the ones with power and no money, like “Edmund,” Gloucester’s son, cower rather than stand up. The folks with backbone happen to be Black women: Cathleen Riddley’s “Kent”; Sam Jackson’s “Cordelia”; Velina Brown’s “Black Queen.” 

Perhaps it takes the loss of one’s sight or one’s mind to shake a person into what’s true and valuable – lovingkindness, honesty, humility, truth? Suffering is not something human beings can avoid – we want to believe that change is not coming, no matter what Sam Cooke says to the contrary. With Marcus Shelby’s score and live performance with musician Scott Larson, the setting a literal upper room – where a Black Queen (Velina Brown) slips in and out as she travels between realms – between what is heavenly and what is not – a spirited presence casting light and shadow on the lives of those she loves – confused Lear and her daughters, whom she cannot save. 

Maybe courage is a third value to round out the work, character work these souls must complete before they move on and the story ends. The hill is a slow climb – over two hours. There are rages and a literal thunderstorm, a war and lots of death – it is, after all, a tragedy. Those who survive are lucky. These characters misstep and fall often as the stakes grow so high one needs a ladder to see oneself clear. 

My favorite characters are the fathers, Lear and Gloucester, who allow praise to cloud their judgment. I also love the Black Queen, who is always present – dressed in white, she has a standing gig in the heavenly bandstand – Marcus Gardley writes, as only Marcus can, Black American characters who are accessible and real. 

King Lear in his fedora hat, has agency. We know him. We appreciate the wise fool character (Sam Jackson). This Elizabethan device used by Shakespeare so well and Gardley too, is not just for comic relief. In African culture, there is the “djali ya” who knows the stories of a people so the “wise one” can remind us who we are. 

I love the djali ya’s discourse on the three brothers: Ku, Klux and Klan. The djali ya runs into the threesome at a restaurant that doesn’t serve “Negroes.” They tell her that “they will do to her whatever she does to the burger, so she gives it a wet sloppy kiss.” 

Though the characters are elite, their problems and issues are not. Greed is something we know. Loss is another feeling many of us know well. Love and loss chase one another across the length and breadth of this work, along with fear and shame. We all know folks like this. It’s Shakespeare so it’s over the top, and it’s a tragedy so lots of people die horrible deaths. Well, evil does not go unpunished and even good people die, right? 

“Lear” is a father-daughter(s) story. It’s a story one doesn’t see enough: Black girls and their dad, Black women and their dad. Gardley’s stories are epic, and he links the land and wealth to a time when Black people were not free and, once freed, were still not equal. Black families and how we were able to hold onto this institution despite the systemic efforts to dismantle it and undermine its importance is always topical as its currency is still a thing in this nation where Black lives do not matter, so why should Black families? 

The fool or jester tells a joke about the complex or compound concept, Black Power, and how that makes America tremble. It is the cause of so much legal unraveling of our Black lives. It’s funny, the Sunday afternoon audience was predominately not us – yet this is an American story. I wonder how many people know about Black removal – we hear a lot about Indian removal acts, not so Black community, which is still disappearing as I write this review. 

This absence from the larger narrative is why Gardley’s “Lear” is so important, as was his “Black Odyssey,” “Jesus Moonwalked Across the Mississippi,” “The House That Will Not Stand,” “The Gospel of Loving Kindness,” “Every Tongue Must Confess” – all produced here in the Bay at Oakland Theatre Project, Cal Shakes, Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, The Magic Theatre, Berkeley Rep or introduced at Bay Area Playwright’s Festival. Often productions were theatrical collaborations, as is “Lear,” a joint production between Bay Area Theater Project (formerly Ubuntu Theater Project) and Cal Shakes. 

“Lear” reminds me a lot of Gardley’s “The House That Will Not Stand.” Perhaps because of the New Orleans references and people in “Lear” who migrated to San Francisco. Perhaps it is the strong Black woman motif. Although it is called “Lear,” Gardley’s play clearly centers Lear’s daughters, his departed wife and his good friend, Kent. 

Cathleen Riddley’s “Kent,” the king’s friend, not only goes looking for him, but she also rescues him and keeps him safe when he fails to recognize danger. Lear’s women are in charge, perhaps because they know intimately systemic racism, sexism and class dynamics and how to place these systems in opposition to one another to their advantage. Typical Black woman stuff – not necessarily healthy, but a behavior we continue to foster. Kent calls us on this undue and unfair responsibility as she thinks about accepting the position – codependency? What happened to cleaning up one’s own messes? She asks everyone. 

Remember Betty Wright’s song, “Clean-up Woman,” – “take a tip, you better get hip.” Perhaps “Lear” might inspire some of us to not make a mess in the first place.

King-Lear-by-Marcus-Gardley-still-1-1400x931, ‘King Lear’ adapted by Marcus Gardley at California Shakespeare Theatre through Oct. 2, Culture Currents
Marcus Gardley writes, as only Marcus can, Black American characters who are accessible and real. 

The play is not for young children (under 12), there are adult situations, language, and besides this, the play is long and kids will not get it. Gardley is exceptional in his ability to take a Eurocentric classic and recast it for the people in service of the people. He never forgets his origin story. 

I love it when Edmund, the villain, who does not deserve our sympathy, spits a rap. He asks for our sympathy, or at least understanding and support. It seems that once a person spills blood it gets easier to spill more. Blood is a metaphor … substitute lies, cheating, theft. Many times, in “Lear,” people are fools because they want to be. This is another lesson – there is no fool like an old fool, but foolishness has no age. 

In the end, the king’s dignity is restored. I loved it the way his hat is his crown. A great gesture. Those assembled bow as he is offered his hat and then puts it on. 

Williams is great mad and humbled. His fall from grace is huge. I think the ground shifts beneath us, at least I felt it the evening I was there. The king, juxtaposed with Asberry’s Gloucester, is an amazing character study and remarkable acting. It was amazing to watch Asberry, because the actor is such a great guy. He is also a real-life dad with a daughter. The same is true for the three sisters – the two older sisters are so bad, the acting is so good and their husbands are so weak – well-done cast! And the plotters, especially the master plotter, Edmund, is so over the top! Excellent work!

The setting is 1969. The Black Panther Party monitors police activity in the Black community. In the fight choreography, the weapon of choice is a switchblade, not a gun or sword. Gardley uses the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense as an alternative system to the one King Lear is a part of. It’s time to dismantle the master’s house. Monarchies are not for the people. 

As already mentioned, the acting is great all around, with phenomenal direction, wonderful sets and lighting design and costumes and the music; well, the music is also a character and Shelby is a great creative artist, the stage one of his elements. Kendra Kimbrough’s choreography is also awesome and the dream team direction with Dawn and Eric and of course other designers too many to call – y’all are also da bomb! Without your expertise, those wonderful actors would not be able to do their work so well. 

The play is closing Oct. 2. Take your white hankies and join the ancestors in the house on the hill. Visit calshakes.org/lear. The Bruns Memorial Amphitheater is in Orinda. It is an outdoor theatre, so dress accordingly. Evenings are cooler. The grounds open two hours before, so patrons are welcome to bring a picnic meal. There is also food served on the premises. There is a Covid policy. Please read in advance. The BART station is serviced by a shuttle to the theatre.

Bay View Arts and Culture Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at wanda@wandaspicks.com. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.