This time last year, I was sitting in Bryant Park contemplating my existence possibly sitting at the center of everything in the grassy lawn, listening to the birds, and the chattering voices from the hundreds of people who were outside during lunchtime. From there I stared out at the surrounding buildings that outlined the park into a square. I sat up on the grass, closed my eyes and cleared my thoughts, imagining I was somewhere else. The wind grazed my face and made my hair wild, and I grew hopeful. This time today, I’m in New Orleans thinking about Shakespeare and listening to ballet music from Hamlet. Shakespeare was born on April 23. The last few years I was in New York City around this date. I somehow always found myself near Bryant Park where they had celebratory readings of his plays. I once overheard a couple arguing in his verses. When sitting on the lawn surrounded by skyscrapers and contemplating my future, I thought about time and how quickly it fades away. Youth seems to slip from your hands. I find a similar sentiment in the sonnet below. We grow and we are never in the same place twice. What better way to triumph over time than to write?
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.