All Hail the Queen — Whitney White Triumphs in 'Macbeth in Stride'

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Tuesday November 2, 2021

Whitney White
Whitney White  (Source:Lauren Miller/ART)

Score it: Whitney White 1. Shakespeare 0.

Or at least give White a TKO for her impassioned argument against the way that this 400-years-dead white playwright (still the most lauded in history) treated his female characters in the American Repertory Theater's "Macbeth in Stride." In short, how can a 21st century, Black actress relate to this white Medieval royal whose blind ambition drives her husband to murder for power? LM gets a bad rap, and White hopes to make it right.

But Shakespeare and his iambic pentamer keep getting in the way. Throughout the piece, which runs a spellbinding 80 minutes, White moves from her commentary on "Macbeth" to being pulled into scenes from it, which express her blind ambition, but not necessarily her great love for her husband.

And that's just the thing — White explains she wants it all: Power and romance. It's Shakespeare who sees it otherwise. She laments at one point that his heroines do not "seem to make it out of the plays alive," and asks him of her character, "Why not give power directly to me?" Instead, Shakespeare delegates her to a supporting role; even her death occurs offstage.

It is the tension between White's thoughts on Lady Macbeth, and those of Shakespeare, that gives the piece its subtext, which explodes in the final moments. The full-voiced White, who also wrote the strikingly original ten-song score, shows remarkable versatility throughout, moving from moments of high camp (as when she appears to be channeling Tina Turner when Lady Macbeth is crowned Queen) to high drama (as when she must convince her husband to kill the king in Shakespeare's verse). That this Macbeth looks like a tatted, Nico Tortorella-like pansexual hipster who might rather sleep with the king than kill him only adds to her challenge of achieving her goal.

Charlie Thurston and Whitney White
Charlie Thurston and Whitney White  (Source: Lauren Miller/ART)

Also, that the production is set in what appears to be a 1970s nightclub, with a shimmering backdrop and platforms on which sits a four-piece band, only adds to it seeming more like a pop concert than a play, with White, dressed in tight, sparkling jump suit, making a hilarious entrance. She is every inch a pop diva, cajoling the audience in her dynamic opening numbers; but she's not there to offer random pop songs. Pushed on by the three back-up singers (okay, The Witches), she explains her ambivalent relationship to Shakespeare and to his most ambitious of female characters. Should she embrace Lady Macbeth because the white patriarchy has told her she should?

Much of the enjoyment is simply watching the charismatic White make her argument with soaring vocals, droll humor, and authenticity. She makes the audience see Lady Macbeth through her eyes as a woman whose agency is doomed by the sexist attitudes of the times in which she is written, and she wonders: Why couldn't the play be about her?

Tyler Dobrowsky and Taibi Magar provide excellent direction, and White gets terrific support from her supporting cast, including the three back-up singers/Witches (played by Phoenix Best, Kira Sarai Helper, and Reggie D. White). Charlie Thurston is splendidly badass as Man/Macbeth, singing in a powerful, lithe rock star tenor and making for such cunning eye candy that you understand why White has such a strong physical connection — something that is realized in their more intimate scenes. They may not have much love, but they definitely have sexual chemistry. Plus, he plays the accordion!

The excellent on-stage ensemble is led by pianist Steven Cuevas (who also collaborated with White on the musical arrangements), while the splendid choreography up and down and around the ramps is the work of Raja Feather Kelly. And setting designer Dan Soule and lighting designer Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew create some gorgeous effects with the wall of drops, which shimmers in gold at one point, that fills the rear of the stage.

But, really, all hail the Queen — in this case, Ms. White, whose dazzling versatility is in full display in this sensational mix of rock, soul, and Shakespeare. The great news is that this is the first in a series of explorations of Shakespeare's heroines by White. May the A.R.T. be the home of whichever she decides to do next.

"Macbeth in Stride" continues through November 14 at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA. For more information, visit the American Repertory Theater website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].