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Director Josette Murray-Ballo was driving to rehearsal for Romeo and Juliet when she heard the news: Two 17-year-old seniors from Wilson High School had been gunned down in their Brookland street while unloading groceries. But what caused her to pull off the road completely were the testimonials that followed. WPGC-FM opened its lines, and young people phoned in. One teenager said that it was only two months into the new year and she had lost five of her girlfriends already. Another pleaded for someone—anyone—to “just tell us what to do.”
When Murray-Ballo composed herself enough to make it to the Petworth basement where her Shakespeare’s Sistah theater company was getting ready for its upcoming performances, she told the cast, “I take it personally.” Andre Wallace and Natasha Marsh were dead. They were young starry-eyed lovers, just like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, killed by the “culture of violence.” Only they were black and living in Washington, D.C. And this play that people whispered she had no right to do—Just who does she think she is?—had now gained a new sense of urgency.
Incense drifts from a shrine in a corner of the room, in one of three different rehearsal spaces the theater group shuttles among until it finds a permanent home. The cast is in costume already—jeans and T-shirts contrasting with African boubous and soros. Murray-Ballo cues up the music, and four women “jalis”—traditional West African griots—wielding colorful tie-dyes and mud cloths, begin a deep, bellowing, hissing din to the accompaniment of soft drumming. As the Montagues and Capulets gang up on opposite sides of the stage and threaten each other, Tupac Shakur blares from the portable CD player. The griots issue a peace warning: “Never disturb our streets again.”
The all-black 12-member cast has a few more surprises in its African-centered adaptation. The guest list for the artistocrats’ ball includes WPGC personality Adimu, Louis Farrakhan, and D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. The language foils such lines as Tybalt’s “I do bite my thumb” with Benvolio’s “Cool out, man!” A party scene calls the audience up to the stage to get down, Soul Train-style, to Lauryn Hill, Biggie Smalls, and Dru Hill. And during a Metrorail scene, Mercutio points to his pelvis and utters sexual remarks as his cohorts shout out, “That is your friend!” and “Go get your boy.” Later on, Brother Lawrence raises his arms in a woeful “Al-Hamdulillah!” before marrying the couple in a traditional Muslim wedding, and the Nurse’s feisty Southern drawl warns Juliet repeatedly to stay away from that “scurvy ‘Bama.”
The humor tempers the script’s serious side. In this “New Jack City,” where emotions run wild, shooting up is the first cure for a broken heart, and guns are the answer to any argument, Murray-Ballo proposes a laying on of hands. In the same spirit that her elders used to frequently “beat [her] butt” to set her back on the right track, Shakespeare’s Sistah nurtures young folks by giving them a voice and showing them that articulating “the Word” of the Bard can itself be a powerful weapon.—Ayesha Morris
Romeo and Juliet runs Thursday and Friday, Feb. 17-18, 12:30-3 p.m., and 6-9 p.m. at Martin Luther King Library; Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 26-27, at 2:30 p.m. at the Silver Spring Library; and 3 p.m. at the Blair Club, respectively. Free. (301) 589-8169.