Entertainment in the first half of the 20th century was marked by way too much blackface (Al Jolson, etc.) and not enough black faces. But that changed for one galvanizing moment in 1936 when an all-black version of Macbeth was performed in New York City to tumultuous acclaim.
That moment is being reimagined now at Ensemble Theatre in Voodoo Macbeth. That is the nickname that was given to the original production, since director Orson Welles, then just a couple years out of high school, set the play in Haiti instead of Scotland.
Directed by Celeste Cosentino and Tyson Douglas Rand, Voodoo Macbeth offers many stellar moments, a number of them revolving around Carly Germany's compelling presence as Lady Macbeth. But one wishes the production designers had gone for broke a little more and tried to capture a bit of the outrageous energy that Welles infused into his legendary interpretation.
Of course, that's a daunting task since his Depression-era show featured a cast of more than 100 black actors, most of whom were rank amateurs. The federal government had decided to stimulate the failing economy in many different areas, and one way was by funding theatrical performances to give people jobs in the arts (not to mention providing cheap entertainment for the citizens).
Ensemble pays tribute to that effort by gathering an all-black cast for VM, and the results are often startlingly effective. Utilizing the actual abridged script Welles had crafted (just 85 minutes in length, compared to a usual Macbeth run-time of 2 to 2½ hours), the play blasts through this story of unalloyed ambition and the forces of darkness that power that craven need.
In this telling, the bullwhip-equipped Hecate (a glowering and galvanizing Joseph Primes) whips up the three voodoo sorceresses into a frenzy that will send Macbeth reeling. Cackling like a gaggle of mean girls in a high school cafeteria, the gals (Chinetha Hall, Emily Terry and Tina Tompkins) provide a repellent if not exactly terrifying touch of nastiness.
As Macbeth, Jimmie Woody is initially so soft spoken and amenable he seems less like a general and nobleman than a curious bystander. Evidently, he has slipped into a lactic stupor brought on by too much "milk of human kindness." This sets the stage for Germany's Lady M., a Diana Ross-slim dynamo bristling with enough naked hunger for her hubby and maybe a regiment or two more.
Germany is a treat to watch as she embodies what Coleridge described as "...the mock fortitude of a mind deluded by ambition." There is madness afoot here, and Germany delivers on all cylinders.
As the bodies start to pile up, Woody also finds a nice groove as his Macbeth raves and hallucinates. Although some of the smaller roles are occupied by actors who trip a bit over Shakespeare's dense verbiage, Kyle Carthens as Macduff and Greg White as Banquo turn in crisp performances. And Stephen D. Hood contributes an amusing turn as the drunk Porter.
It's a shame more stage magic is not employed to make the priestesses' cauldron scenes more impressive and ominous. Adding percussionists, such as the ones Karamu uses in some of their productions, would have provided a more lush and threatening ambiance. And the costuming by Angelina Herin, while inoffensive, lacks the wit that could have taken the production to a different level.
Still, Ensemble brings to life a script and an interpretation of a Shakespeare classic that deserves to be seen.
voodoo macbeth Through June 8 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930, ensemble-theatre.com.