Dram Tree Shakespeare presents its latest show, Romeo & Juliet, in a relatively traditional manner, but with a twist from director Don Baker: the Capulets are white and Montagues are black. Final performances are Thursday and Friday, November 1 and 2 at Thalian Hall.
Listen to our conversation with Don above and see our extended discussion below.
Gina: Don, you have been doing theater for a long time.
Don: I have. Actually since I was maybe four or five and my cousins, mostly older girl cousins, used to like to put on these plays for all my aunts and uncles. And they would do all the great important roles, but they would let me do the commercials. I remember my first one was Grandma's No Slip Bath Soap and I got a laugh from my aunts and uncles, so I've loved it ever since.
Gina: Have you been mostly directing or mostly acting?
Don: Probably more directing than acting.
Gina: I remember I first met you when you directed a show for Stageworks. That's when I met you.
Don: I remember. "Still Life With Iris."
Gina: Yes, such a fun show. Talking about Romeo and Juliet ... You responded to a request from Dram Tree Shakespeare, the company was looking for ideas for a new twist on Romeo and Juliet and you responded to that with your idea, with your concept for the show.
Don: Well, I think my concept was I wanted to do it in a pretty traditional style. I didn't want to change the location or the time period, but I wanted to cast it with one family being black and another family being white. It didn't really matter to me which was which, I let the availability of talent determined which was which.
Gina: Where did that idea come from?
Don: Well, I think in some ways it's very obvious. I mean, it's a two factions that are very distrustful and actually in a lot of ways are hateful of each other. S it seemed somewhat natural, particularly here in particularly in this current climate and we've been dealing with the aftermath of slavery and probably more so Jim Crow for a long time and there is still a great deal of animosity and distrust. I see it particularly in this community, but all over the country. So it seemed like a, an interesting idea to see how that layer would play on the Romeo and Juliet Story. I asked my cast to consider that they were living in Italy in the 16th century, but with a 2018 Wilmington, North Carolina mindset and approach to their characters.
Gina: As you were directing this with the black and white families. were there any surprises to you in terms of, in terms of how it played?
Don: Well, I think one of the surprises was the, almost a difficulty in setting the clear delineation between the characters. And part of that was because I chose to make the prince, the president of Verona a mixed race character. In the back of my head was thinking Barack Obama and his have difficulties dealing with the same kind of separations. Therefore, her kinsmen we're both black and white, which made for a much more collegial visual. The cast was very collegial, a magnificent cast. A really strong cast. It's not quite 50 slash 50, but it's, it's close and the racial mix. But they're very collegial and I had a lot of trouble saying, now I want you to think racist thoughts here. No, no, you got to be thinking this. You got to be doing that.
I mean, and the cast ... I mean, clearly the Capulets, the white family, it ended up that Juliet was white and Romeo was black, there are different levels of racism that a try. I mean, I think Tybalt is probably much more kind of Alt Right and very strongly racist. Lady Capulet. was probably I don't want to be political here- kind of a right leaning Republican maybe. Capulet, her husband, I always kind of the back of my head thought, well, he may, he voted for Obama once. And then Juliet who is completely kind of unaware of race in the race, which I think is where we are as a culture today.
Gina: I think it's really interesting to know how you think about how you layed the political, the overwhelming political landscape in your thoughts about these characters. How could you not? So that's really interesting.
Don: It was surprising though, how that this overwhelming political landscape subjects itself to the personal immediate landscape of the people involved. I Have to say I think, and at least for the bulk of us, that that's what happens. We have a political notion, but we think more to more personally finally.
Gina: With our own life.
Gina: Let me ask you about casting Romeo and Juliet as teenagers, as they are supposed to be, as what they are. That's risky.
Don: Very risky. And I was scared to death. That's a lot of words, a lot of sentiment, a lot of understanding for a 15 and 17 year old actor to do. And we spent a lot of time doing table reads, knowing what they're saying. But it's one thing to know you're saying it's another to be able to infuse that with life and personality and your body and being. I was extremely pleased with what we ended up with. Both Malachi and Karen were so receptive, so eager to work, to learn, to listen, to do well. And they did. I think certainly, it's more normally cast as 20 year olds or 25 year olds or young-looking 30 year olds. And certainly, 10 to 15 more years experience who would have given a broader range of tools to pull from for them. But the strength of seeing those kids as kids, those decisions that are life-shattering that we can and do make as people with not that much experience. And not all those tools to help guide us. Now, not that in my 74 years I've learned enough tools to be able to really successfully guide myself, but it does help some.
Gina: The great thing about it is that the truth is that we have these kids, kids that don't have the tools, but they have the power to make these decisions. They have the power, they have the will, you know, the willfulness. And yeah, and of course in this case, in the Romeo and Juliet story, it's catastrophic. Is there anything else you can tell me about this production?
Don: I do have this a nude white statue in the middle of the stage that I wanted there, to a large degree, talking about young love and sexuality and all that. But I did tell my cast to think of it as a Confederate statue. Most of them just kind of just ignored it, but a few of them, I got the response that I wanted.