Flesh of a Corrupted Heart: Shakespeare, Jocelyn Bioh, and Equivocal Joy in Central Park

All hail Jocelyn Bioh. Three years ago MCC premiered her debut play School Girls, or the African Mean Girls Play to thunderous success. Lean, funny, and thought-provoking, it presented a brand-new playwriting voice in Bioh: devoid of pretension but crackling and theatrical. Her next play, Nollywood Dreams, has been delayed, but in the meantime audiences can see her wonderful adaptation of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, here titled just Merry Wives, for free in Central Park.

I saw a preview performance of Merry Wives, so I won’t review the production itself in this space. Instead, I hope to comment on the event — the return of major live theatre to New York after a hiatus of almost 18 months. Suffice to say that Merry Wives genuinely delightful, and Bioh’s adaptation is that rarest of things: an improvement upon the Shakespeare original.

Hold on, did I just say it improved on Shakespeare? Shakespeare!? Isn’t that supposed to be ‘impossible’?

In most cases I would agree. No adaptation of Troilus and Cressida or The Winter’s Tale could approach the visionary quality of the Bard’s great works. But The Merry Wives of Windsor is no masterpiece. In fact, the play stands with works like Titus Andronicus and the final part of Henry VI in a race to the bottom of Shakespeare’s oeuvre. 

And yet the play, frequently unfunny and shallow, is produced with some regularity. The production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2017 confirmed that the play is … depressingly bad, knowing the author. But Dawn Monique Williams’ staging was anything but. With ‘90s pop hits interpolated into the material, loud performances, and even louder design, OSF used Shakespeare as a springboard from which to present a colorful, zany delight of a production.

The same approach is used for Jocelyn Bioh and Saheem Ali’s Merry Wives. Here, the play is re-titled and re-set to present-day Harlem. What results is an easily relevant and relaxed production. In fact, the singular delight of the work is that cultural context. It doesn’t matter if Merry Wives is a great play because the production at the Delacorte is a joyful sharing of community in a particularly dark time in our nation’s history.

In some ways, it makes sense that weaker Shakespeare plays can make for excellent productions in current New York theatre. The trend in staging Shakespeare’s work is to use the text as a light suggestion, whereby the director can use an old text to illuminate her new ideas about the world. This tends to diminish the source material — Shakespeare’s masterpieces have taken quite the beating as of late. No matter how many ideas a director may have, they will never outsmart or cast new light on the strongest plays in the English language.

This is where The Merry Wives of Windsor emerges as ideal candidate for production in 2021. It is shallow enough that an exceptional playwright like Bioh can outsmart Shakespeare, casting new light on his minor work through her interpretation. Ms. Bioh and Mr. Ali are the rare team of artists who improve Shakespeare by adding their own light of interpretation. Would this approach of modernizing work for a tragic masterpiece like King Lear or Henry IV? I don’t know, but I think there’s good reason they targeted a lesser play, and a lighter comedy, at least to start.

Thanks to Jocelyn Bioh, Saheem Ali, and a tremendously talented cast, we are reminded once again that the event of theatre is for the community. Indeed, seeing Merry Wives in the park calls to mind theatre as it must have been in Shakespeare’s England — thoroughly contemporary and immediate, with a fundamental recognition of the porous boundary between the stage and audience.

Merry Wives is a play meant for the community at large, but one has to wonder: which community? Though the production celebrates the unique culture of the African diaspora of Harlem, that celebration is equivocated by the acknowledgement by the Public Theatre of the stolen land on which the Delacorte Theatre rests. Central Park was built through the destruction of Seneca Village, a small Black community not unlike the one portrayed in Merry Wives. There is a fundamental irony to celebrating one diasporic community while resting on the graveyard of another. And that’s to say nothing of the Lenape people, who were displaced to make room for American settler colonialism long before Central Park was even an idea.

Can free Shakespeare in the park, nominally an altruistic theatre event, really be immoral? Can any live performance in America be an impetus for moral good?

The final scene of Merry Wives is a false séance, conjuring ghosts of flesh and bone to terrify the pseudo-Falstaff into sexual self-denial. Mistress Quickly, in disguise as a fairy queen, begins Shakespeare’s text but quickly descends into a eulogy by Ms. Bioh for the tremendous oppression and violence leveled against Black Americans in the eighteen months since theatre was shut down. “Our lives matter!” she screams, and the mostly white audience applauds dutifully in response. But they are an audience of colonizers, virtue signaling but largely uninterested in distributive economic justice. 

Case in point: A freebie stump speech for Chuck Schumer preceded the play. The majority leader of a senate that will continue to work against the most oppressed of Americans was riotously applauded. Don’t forget the dutiful booing of nameless Republicans (who are not in power right now, just as a reminder). While many theatre artists are ready to start the conversation about the genuinely difficult work presented to us to better society, the audience is largely still content to sit back, relax, and enjoy the play as a flighty diversion. 

We’re still in a pandemic. No essay is complete without reminding readers, so consider yourselves reminded. Merry Wives had to shut down for two nights before I saw the show. By the time this essay is published, it may have shut down for more. I can only hope the actors feel safe performing. Is there morality to seeing Shakespeare in the park? Even as I write about the largely white, milquetoast audience, I do so from white hands, white privilege. In fact, I’m not really any different from the swarms of people I hope to criticize. Intellectual class consciousness does more to reveal the evil behind seemingly mundane activities than it does to help liberate those who are still oppressed as I write these very words. In the end, shouldn’t I bear the brunt of my own criticism?

I wrestle with these questions as I ride back home on the Subway, to a gentrified apartment in Brooklyn. We, the white audience, are not politically a force for good in the world of Jocelyn Bioh’s Merry Wives. But for this moment, thanks to Central Park and Chuck Schumer, we are invited to participate in the joy of Harlem, the joy of community, and the joy of live theatre, together.

“Our lives matter!”, Mistress Quickly screams. They’re not ghosts, they’re just pretending. Because ghosts aren’t real, but people are. And for one moment theatre, and it’s perfect. Then, like all good things, it ends. Back to the subway, back home: nothing remains but a memory of the possibility of a better world. Thank you, Jocelyn Bioh.

Photo: Joan Marcus / The Public Theater

Merry Wives plays at the Delacorte Theatre through September 18, 2021.

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