A huge Afro comb stands teeth-down upstage right, its handle worked in a Black Power fist; a wide stone basin nestled in a carved round base rests in front of it; and a monumental African mask with intricate braids looks down from above. Welcome to the “Harlem” of adaptor/director Justin Emeka’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Harlem, a playfully imagined world (scenic design by Anka Lupes) that gathers together elements of the African Diaspora across both time and space to tell the familiar story from Shakespeare’s play. Here, the young lovers chase each other in contemporary street fashion wear, the mechanicals show up in the uniforms of New York City sanitation workers, delivery drivers, store managers, and security guards, while Titania (Portia), Oberon (Keith Lee Grant), and the fairies (Chrisala M. Brown, Kelsey Robinson, Calina Womack, and Hope Anthony) wear colorful African/ Afro-Carribean dresses and tunics (costumes are by Demeatria Boccella). Puck (the excellent Jaris Owens), all in red, is also Eshu, the Yoruba trickster god, while the Duke and Hippolyta seem to have time-travelled from a 1920s Harlem nightclub. The sonic world offers a similar sampler box of African diasporic music, ranging from percussion on the djembe and berimbau (performed masterfully by Akinlana Lowman) to beat-boxing and hip-hop.
Playful, as well, is Emeka’s approach to adapting Shakespeare’s story. The transposition of the mechanicals into a group of New York workers is inspired, and the fantastic group of actors who make up the comically underprepared players – E. Mani Cadet as Quince, Andre G. Brown as Bottom, Brian Starks as Snug, Harry J. Hawkins IV as Flute, Marshall Weir Mabry IV as Snout, and Richard McBride as Starveling – has excellent chemistry and timing. Moreover, Emeka’s adaptation not only celebrates Harlem as an “African melting pot,” but it also centers queer love: Hermia (Saige Smith) is here in love with (female) Lysandra (Amara Granderson) instead of Demetrius (Brenden Peifer); these latter two have their ardor redirected toward Helena (June Alvilda Almonte) by way of a magic flower, which has them madly twerking, posing, and doing various TikTok-inspired moves to win her affection.
At times, however, I could have wished that this adaptation paused the playfulness a bit to consider how its choices weave intersectional oppression into a plot that already hinges on patriarchal power and domination. (Remember: the original is a comedy that begins with a scene in which the Duke is making preparations to marry Hippolyta, who is his prisoner of war.) When Hermia’s father refuses to consider Lysandra a suitable match and says he would prefer to see Hermia die than marry a woman, we are no longer in the realm of mere patriarchal obstinacy (as in the original) but rather in a world of violent homophobia. Yet the production blows past this, as it later blows past the fact that Oberon has drugged Titania and made her engage in intimacy with another character without her full consent. Some attention to the serious undertones of this play might have allowed our laughter to stick a bit in our throats and reminded us that many injustices – homophobia, transphobia, misogyny – follow us even into spaces of joy.
Emeka’s adaptation leans instead into magic and lightness. He’s helped by Lupes’s set, which has a bunch of surprising transformations up its sleeve; by Zach Moore’s lovely and at times psychedelic projection design; and by Chrisala M. Brown’s vibrant, African- and Afro-Brazilian-inspired choreography. At the end of the play, when the entire cast, dressed in white, fills the stage to celebrate the plot’s happy resolution in dance, it’s not only an exuberant and infectious affirmation of Black joy, but also a rejoicing in the abundance of African diasporic forms that have shaped Black identity in this country.