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Paulanne Simmons

Romeo and Juliet Take to the Street


Romeo and Juliet
Directed by Justin Emeka
Richard Rodgers Amphitheater in Marcus Garvey Park
Entrance at 124 Street and 5th Avenue
Opened July 5, 2014
Tues. - Thurs., Sat & Sun. at 7:30 p.m., Fri. at 8:15 p.m.
Closes July 27, 2014
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons July 18, 2014

Natalie Pau as Julietl and Sheldon Best as Romeo. Photo by Jill Jones.

If there is anyone who believes young people or people of color or anyone living in the 21st century cannot identify with Shakespeare, all he or she has to do is attend a performance of "Romeo and Juliet," The Classical Theatre of Harlem's sophomore effort to present free summer shows in Marcus Garvey Park, and all such nonsense will be quickly dispelled.

Justin Emeka, who adapted and directs the play, sets the story of star-crossed lovers in the streets of Harlem and the homes of its most aristocratic (and urbanized) residents. As the tragic tale unfolds, it is accompanied by hip-hop music and dance, reflecting the raw emotions depicted by the excellent cast.

Sheldon Best, is the ardent Romeo, and Natalie Paul is the nubile Juliet. Best and Paul's scenes boil with the intensity of their growing love. Their combination of desire, restraint, fear and sacrifice is magnetic. And the fact that their love blossoms on gritty, urban streets only makes it more noble.

In Ty Jones's capable hands, Mercutio becomes a kind of "playa," a young man with a quick wit that wins him both friends and enemies. Even as he dies and is led offstage, Jones makes sure we respect this fiery individual far more than pity him.

Sheldon Best as Romeo. Photo by Jill Jones.

Although in many productions Friar Lawrence is a fairly colorless role, in this production Sister Lawrence, as portrayed by Zianab Jah, becomes a wise village elder, perhaps a griot who, like Shakespeare, is sometimes called a bard.

Finally, and fortunately, the Nurse is played by Jamie Rezanour with all the gossipy bounce, worldly cynicism and servile enthusiasm that makes this role so funny and absurd. We can easily see Nurse as one of those women who sit on their stoop watching and commenting acerbically on their neighbors.

As Jones has pointed out, Romeo and Juliet explores "centuries-old themes around love, identity, violence and masculinity." Surely Jones has demonstrated that his "young, contemporary, multicultural consumers" can identify with these themes just as thoroughly as Shakespeare's audiences of aristocrats and groundlings.



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