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Directed by Ethan McSweeny
Presented in association with American Shakespeare Center
Featuring Grantham Coleman, Paul Gross, Carol Halstead, John Harrell, Chris Johnston, Sam Lilja, Amelia Pedlow, Sam Saint Ours, Zoe Speas, Sarah Suzuki, and Sara Topham
It’s love at first sight for Kai, a Japanese musicologist, when she spies Tyler, the only student of color in his PhD cohort, at a Shakespeare conference. Each night, while Tyler dreams he is the subject of his thesis: Ira Aldridge, the first black man to play Othello, Kai dreams of Tyler. As dreams start to merge with reality, Tyler and Kai are brought closer together. Yet Tyler, like Ira before him, can not perceive the inevitable betrayal of his closest ally. A heartfelt ode to always being the second-class genius of color, Keene is a playful riff on early-career academia, Shakespeare’s Othello, and the power of American pop.
Download a virtual program.
Read David Sterling Brown's program note.
This event premiered LIVE on Monday, October 19. A recording of the livestream will be available until 7:00 PM EDT on Friday, October 23 – then it disappears.
Red Bull Theater wishes to express its gratitude to the Performers’ Unions: ACTORS’ EQUITY ASSOCIATION, AMERICAN GUILD OF MUSICAL ARTISTS, AMERICAN GUILD OF VARIETY ARTISTS, and SAG-AFTRA through Theatre Authority, Inc. for their cooperation in permitting the Artists to appear in this program.
Kai (Margaret Gill) | Sarah Suzuki
Tyler (Ira Aldridge) | Grantham Coleman
Chorus 1 (James Wallack) | Paul Gross
Chorus 2 (Karen) | Sara Topham
Chorus 3 (Rose) | Carol Halstead
Chorus 4 (Dana/Margaret’s friend) | Amelia Pedlow
Chorus 5 (Rob) | Chris Johnston
Chorus 6 (Alex) | Zoe Speas
Chorus 7 (Bill) | John Harrell
Chorus 8 (Ian) | Sam Lilja
Stage Directions/Harry Styles | Sam Saint Ours
Producing Director | Nathan Winkelstein
Zoom Coordinator | Betsy Ayer
OBS Coordinator | Jessica Fornear
OBS Consultant | Jenna Worden
ASC VIDEO COORDINATOR | Dan Hasse
Dramaturg | Anne C. Morgan
Drama League Directing Fellow | Emma Rosa Went
ABOUT THE PLAY
In this “post-postracial” world that too often conveniently equates blackness with race—and, in so doing, perpetuates the false notion that white people are raceless beings—it is not always the case that whiteness is rendered visible and thus presented through theater as a racialized category that necessitates critical examination. Yet, with Keene, Anchuli Felicia King accomplishes this difficult task by creating a deeply engaging play that is color-conscious, as opposed to “post-racially” colorblind, especially with respect to whiteness.
Keene follows Tyler, a Black ivy-league graduate student, through a three-day Shakespeare conference that is overwhelmingly white; and the play also follows Tyler into his historically informed dreams, where aspects of nineteenth-century Black actor Ira Aldridge’s life appear in vivid detail, ultimately revealing life parallels of isolation and betrayal between Tyler and Aldridge, parallels that also resonate with the trajectory of Shakespeare’s tragic Black protagonist Othello. When Tyler dreams, so, too, does Kai, a Japanese musicologist who instantly falls in love with Tyler and his blackness and who is the only other non-white person at this Shakespeare conference. It is in this sea of whiteness that Tyler and Kai stand out, paradoxically becoming visible and invisible in distinct dramatic moments emphasizing the kind of uncomfortable hypervisibility that is a byproduct of the psychologically and emotionally harmful racism, exoticism, exceptionalism and tokenism one can experience in predominantly white spaces.
With its emphasis on anxious early career researchers, in addition to its glimpse into the past through Aldridge and the significant challenges he faced because of anti-Black racism, colonialism and prejudice, Keene offers a powerfully serious critique of several relevant and fundamentally important issues that deserve centering in the arts and public discourse. These issues include but are not limited to the: objectification of Black men; instability of whiteness as a racial construct; marginalization of international scholars; limits and failures of allyship; white scholars’, or white people’s, presumed ownership of Shakespeare vis-à-vis bardolatry; elitism and toxicity of academia; gatekeeping in academic publishing; competitiveness of graduate program cohorts; commodification of blackness; peer pressure and anxiety permeating academic conference environments; and the consequences of racialized self-doubt and the resulting self-sabotage.
Through this satirical and timely play that occasionally alludes to American pop music, King invites her audience to consider identity and belonging as she highlights some of the negative and even damaging aspects of a profession—academia—that undoubtedly extend beyond Shakespeare studies and the theater world, beyond Tyler’s and Kai’s dreams, and into the real worlds of those who experience Keene.
– David Sterling Brown, PhD | Assistant Professor of English | Binghamton University
FROM THE PLAYWRIGHT
I wrote Keene as a submission to American Shakespeare Center’s New Contemporaries prize. The prize invites playwrights to write a response play to one of Shakespeare’s works, with his original staging conditions in mind. I felt compelled to respond to Othello because I had such complicated feelings about the play; I found the text and its performance history to be both profoundly rich and deeply fraught. My entry point to Othello’s problematic legacy was to begin researching the life of Ira Aldridge, one of the first black actors to play Othello. The more I read about Aldridge’s career, the more parallels I began to identify between his struggles and modern Shakespearean scholarship, as contemporary academics of color attempted to reclaim a discourse that had historically vilified and excluded them.
Keene exists on a thematic continuum with many of my other plays; I’m constantly trying to grapple with the inherited traumas of colonialism in an increasingly globalized world. What makes this play markedly different from my other writing, however, is that Keene is a love story! The play’s romance is, in many ways, my love letter to Shakespeare as a dramatist. While I find so much about Bardolatry exasperating (pour one out for Ben Johnson), I think Shakespeare’s enduring genius lies in the way he dramatizes love. In Keene, my star-crossed lovers are Tyler and Kai, the only two scholars of color at a Shakespeare conference. Throughout the play, we move between the events of the conference and a dreamlike nineteenth century, when Tyler dreams he is the subject of his doctoral dissertation: Ira Aldridge.
Rest assured, if you don’t know Othello, you will face no impediments in understanding this play! Keene is a thematic riff, not an adaptation; it operates in its own dramatic universe. But if you do know Othello, you’ll be able to spot the play’s many parallels and references to its Shakespearean source. In fact, Othello is just one of many intertextual threads I have lovingly woven into Keene. The play’s citations (from Mary Shelley to Ariana Grande) make no distinction between high and low art; this play is as much a pop fantasia as it is a gentle satire of Shakespearean academia.
In this play, Tyler’s dreams allow him to oscillate between two separate yet interlocked timelines. I’ve been fondly dreaming of the alternate timeline where we would just be starting rehearsals for this play at ASC. While I can’t locate a great deal of joy in this pandemic-induced pause, I can at least locate a sliver of hope: the hope that we can seize this moment to acknowledgement and dismantle the many racist practices and institutions we continue to uphold. The struggles experienced by Ira Aldridge remain all too present in today’s world. Keene is my plea for us to acknowledge genius in all its colors, and to uplift the hitherto silenced voices and erased histories in our theatrical canon.
ABOUT THE PLAYWRIGHT
Anchuli Felicia King is a playwright, screenwriter and multidisciplinary artist of Thai-Australian descent.
As a writer, Felicia is interested in linguistic hybrids, digital cultures and issues of globalization. Her plays have been produced by the Royal Court Theatre (London), Studio Theatre (Washington D.C.), American Shakespeare Center (Staunton), Melbourne Theatre Company (Melbourne), Sydney Theatre Company, National Theatre of Parramatta and Belvoir Theatre (Sydney).
As a multidisciplinary artist, Felicia has worked with a wide range of companies, including Punchdrunk, PlayCo, 3LD Arts & Technology Center, Roundabout Theater, Manhattan Theatre Club, 59E59, Ars Nova, the Obie Awards, The Builders Association, Ensemble Studio Theater, NYTW, American Shakespeare Company and Red Bull Theater. She is a member of Ensemble Studio Theater's Youngblood Group and Roundabout Theater's Space Jam Program.
Formerly based in New York, Felicia continues to work internationally and is based between London, New York and her hometown of Melbourne, Australia.