Julius Caesar at BAM!

When you first walk into the Harvey Theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), and the usher directs you to your seat, you sit under the warm lights of yellow to red hues reminiscent of sub-Saharan Africa. Performers of an all-black cast walk about the stage and a few wander into the audience to socialize breaking the invisible barrier between audience and stage. It is not quite clear when the show actually begins but there is a height to the West African score composed by Akintayo Akinbode that does not really urge the audience to be quiet or settle down, but to ready itself for this celebration as the cast dance and sing “Caesar! Caesar!” Now enters Julius Caesar and his wife stage left dressed in white garbs. “Caesar! Caesar!” the crowd continues to shout. When all of a sudden the music stops and our attention is directed to the soothsayer, dawned in clay, who shouts to Caesar: “Beware the ides of March!” Now the play has officially begun. BAM, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and The Ohio State University presents “Julius Caesar.”

Originally, William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” takes place in ancient Rome in 44 BC and tells the story of the conspiracy against Julius Caesar, his assassination, and the defeat of his conspirators. BAM’s interpretation stays true to Shakespeare’s original work but it differs in that now it is set in present-day Africa and features an all-black cast. While at first it might seem like a huge shock or surprise to feature Julius Caesar, played by Jeffery Kissoon, and the play with an all-black ensemble in which some reviews have labeled the play at BAM as “Shakespeare’s African Play” or “A Caesar with an African Accent,” and still some simply exclaim that “This Caesar Wears an African Cloak,” lest we forget that the ancient Roman empire of 44 BC did stretch from Persia to Spain and Britain to North Africa. Nevertheless, at BAM, Rome is surrounded by West African drums and seeks to reiterate the story of Julius Caesar as it speaks to historical premises of Africa.

Paterson Joseph. Photo: Kwame Lestrade

Paterson Joseph. Photo: Kwame Lestrade

While audiences do have to alleviate the need for some specificity as the play never announces which country in Africa the play locates itself in or as it substitutes the red, black, and green Pan-African flag with that of an actual countries flag, if you accept the ambiguous Africa, you will find that it is not just the all black cast or West African music that allows the play to speak to a black experience while holding on to William Shakespeare’s dialect written in 1599 in London. According to the Royal Shakespeare Company, it was The Complete Works of William Shakespeare and a passage of “Julius Caesar” that spoke to Nelson Mandela in 1977 when he was imprisoned on Robben Island for the uprising against the South African apartheid. Referred to there as the “Robben Island Bible” the following passage from “Julius Caesar” of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare resonated most with Mandela:

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard.
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.

As “Julius Caesar” tells the story of an ancient Roman empire that suffered from constant inland fighting and civil wars between ambitious military leaders and those seeking to overthrow them, it can speak to many of Africa’s past and present civil wars in numerous countries such as the Chad civil wars between 2005 and 2010, the Algerian Civil War from 1991 to 2002, or the First and Second Congo Wars from 1996 to 2003 just to name a few. But the most visible historical premise in the play at BAM is that of Julius Caesar’s horsehair whisk that he carries around reminiscent of that used by Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the first president of Malawi, and the leader of the Malawi nationalist movement. When Banda led Malawi to independence from Britain in 1963, he also declared himself president and established a one party state suppressing  and discouraging any prime ministers or politicians from starting a rivalry before he became ill in 1993. So, although commended for declaring independence for Malawi, some have slated Banda a tyrant just like Caesar.

Julius Caesar. Photo: Kwame Lestrade

Julius Caesar. Photo: Kwame Lestrade

Most important, what comes with many of the civil wars on the continent is the displacement of people along with their values. As “Julius Caesar” speaks to the conflicts between personal ambitions versus the public good, what we see on stage is a breakdown of true values such as honor, loyalty, families, and friendships, for the power and authority that come with political aspirations. This is represented through styling from that of traditional African garb present in the first half of the play to military uniforms in the second half. Just as the play tackles public personas versus private personas as the characters neglect their private feelings and loyalties for political purposes even to the extent that they abandon their wives such as when Portia, Brutus’s wife commits suicide after he leaves and fails to confide in her, so have true African spirit and morale been abandoned in return for political power.

Audiences will enjoy the play’s reverence of Shakespeare’s original work, versatility, and prowess of the presentation of “Julius Caesar” at BAM. The play is currently running at BAM Harvey Theater until April 28, 2013 and you can purchase tickets at www.bam.org/Juliuscaesar.