Jumping into The Tempest on a summer night in Harlem.
Not having read The tempest, I had no recollection of what the play should look like. I’m familiar with William Shakespeare’s style from reading Othello and Macbeth mostly, but I can’t always slip into the language so readily. After a couple of scenes from The Tempest, my ears were slowly getting accustomed, to the back and forth, and juxtaposition of the words. I held on to the imagery, metaphors, and the contradictions of the dialogue on stage.
The Tempest explores betrayal and revenge; the toll it takes on the body and the mind of those trapped in the web of deceit. The idea of revenge is engraved in society. Humans are experts at plotting revenge even for the slightest betrayal. That doesn’t mean they should since it creates a vicious circle of hate and animosity. As a consequence of malicious acts surely a punishment will be dealt out by the affected party. Some societies go to extremes and use capital punishment, a practice derived from an archaic tradition, and not representative of the 21st century. The idea of an eye for eye goes back to the Babylonian law code of ancient Mesopotamia dating back to 1754 BC.
Going back to The Tempest. It begins with the spirit Ariel perched up near the ceiling singing a sweet melody, luring us out to sea then turning to screams, as a cruel storms begins it descent. Cut to the next scene, a group of mariners including the King of Naples and his son are on a boat, shaking violently by the waves. Prospero has carefully orchestrated a plan to divert the ship to an island he’s lived in for 12 years. Once the mariners arrive on land, Prospero must make the decision of how to deal with these adversaries; whether to let them suffer or live.
Prospero is played by the stage vet, Ron Cephas Jones, and the cast is a wonderful display of young talented actors.
The stage was decorated by a gray mountainous rock with a bluish floor representing either sand or sea depending on the scene. Prospero and his daughter Miranda often walked side by side down from a high peak in an almost kingly display. Prospero carries an intimidating staff with some creature’s head on the top. He wears a magician’s hat and flamboyant, yet tattered clothes. Not without reason. Prospero was the rightful Duke of Milan until his sibling and the King of Naples conspired against him. Long ago in Naples, Prospero and Miranda were kidnapped and left to die in the sea. They eventually found this island and ruled over it with magic.
While this version is a serious interpretation of the play, there’s also a bit of loose acting and playful fun that fits our era. Dancing is abundant as a group of creatures with horns dance provocatively. One plays the violin and stands over a rock looking over the lost mariners.
Prospero decides to confront his enemies but ultimitely forgives them for their wrongful acts. He gives up his magic and releases Ariel from her duties, since for most of her life she was under his control. At the end he delivers a powerful epilogue asking to be forgiven for his actions mostly driven by hate and a need for revenge. He tells the audience, clapping will set him free. This was Shakespeare’s last play, and perhaps a way of saying goodbye to his own magical world.
Prospero seeks reprisal from the hardships he’s experienced, but he finds redemption from a compassionate audience, and also learns to forgive himself.
Central Park’s Delacorte Theater is not the only place to watch Shakespeare’s plays. The Tempest was presented by The Classical Theater of Harlem. There are numerous establishment bringing his work to life including the Drilling Company, Shakespeare in the Parking Lot, and plenty of others. This makes it possible for Shakespeare to be available to everyone.