African-American Shakespeare Company's Julius Caesar, directed by Michael Gene Sullivan asks the question, does power corrupt absolutely. And the answer is a resounding, "Yes!" Set in Africa, a place where only recently have blacks been ruling, Caesar's comrades bask in their newly won freedoms. No longer will the people be subject to tyranny, rule by despots whose aim is just to fatten their own coffers--to hell with the populace!
When the play opens drunken soldiers stumble onto the stage, boom box blaring the latest hip hop music as the wine flows between them. The image of the deposed ruler glares at them, until Cassius rips it from the wall, a smiling likeness of Caesar conveniently replaces the visage. Everyone is happy and celebratory feelings bubble over until Cassius begins to sow doubt in the minds of his closest associates which includes Brutus, that Caesar is too full of himself, that he wants to be king and enslave the people.
What I don't understand is why Brutus, Caesar's friend, best friend, at that, doesn't confront Caesar with the rumors and let him explain himself.
When Caesar appears on stage, his entourage suitably servile, he presents a striking pose as commander in chief. Granted, the people prone to idolatry set him up, but what's to say he would have fallen into the trap? He might have just been enjoying the moment, knowing that it would pass because democracy was what he fought for, not oligarchy.
There is a sage or soothsayer, portrayed by actor, Fred Pitts, who tries to warn Caesar, but he doesn't listen the first time, and at the second encounter, his enemies keep the messages from him. Caesar seems either too full of himself or gullible. I guess he thinks power only changes the one with it, not those who surround him. In his case no one remains unchanged or the same, but L. Jeffery Moore's Caesar is a mix of arrogance and naivete, a kind of foolishness that costs him dearly.
The set looks like a war camp set up under a freeway ramp, without the lanes (smile). There are beams with trees and other foliage offering cover. The soldiers wear fatigues with red, black, and green insignia. It is an integrated army, women and men both serve--in this cast, Tristan Cunningham plays both Portia, Brutus's wife and Cassius's right hand, Decius. While Amy Lizardo, portrays a ruthless soldier, Casca, who kills with impunity and Calpurnia, Caesar's wife. I like the wives, though they have really short scenes, the concern and love they feel for their husbands and in Brutus's case is returned with respect, adds a complexity to the story without which this side of the warring generals would remain unexplored.
Frederick Pitts shift from Soothsayer to Mark Anthony is stunning. His Mark Anthony, Caesar's true friend whose life once spared avenges his friend, is excellent. He should get an Oscar for his role. Antony fools Brutus over the protests of Cassius, who reads character much better than his principled friend. This play is one catastrophe after another. Okay, Brutus allows his friend's murder to take place. It's done. How he expects Antony to allow them to get away with it is unthinkable. He should have followed Cassius's entire plan. Murderers don't have principles. Once one steps over that line, its a slippery slope--morality the second casualty if not the first.
I don't understand why Brutus leaves Mark Antony to eulogize Caesar. Why does he trust a man who certainly doesn't trust him? They take Caesar's body to town where the citizens meet Brutus with anger. Once they are seemingly apeased, he leaves and Mark Antony gives his performance, one where he twists Brutus's words, "ambition" and "honorable:" Caesar was murdered because he was ambitious, those who slay him honorable, right?
Mark Anthony's speech is a great sales pitch complete with props as he dramatically uncovers the slain leader who is butchered and bloody. He then pulls out a sheet of paper, he says is Caesar's will which divides the kingdom with the citizens of Rome, which means Caesar was not ambitious which makes Brutus a murderer. The paper is probably blank, but it works and Antony entreats the people to war. Meanwhile Cassius is drinking too much and estorting money from the citizens, while Brutus is haunted by his friend's look of surprise when he is stabbed in the back. There are no happy campers as Antony mounts a civil war.
Echoes of MacBeth people this play: ghosts, soothsayers, wives dying of grief, regret.
The simple thing to do is to allow Caesar to answer his charges before killing him. This would have saved a lot of lives, but it doesn't happen.
Another thing I don't understand is why both Cassius and Brutus take the easy way out. They brutally slay Caesar, yet their endings, while painful, are not nearly as brutal--Brutus, brutal? Did Shakespeare realize the play was getting a bit long and need to end it in a dramatic furl?
Three wasted lives a fourth sitting in the waiting room, his fate already set.
In the end, power which corrupts absolutely brings no new lessons to the next ruler Mark Anthony. He arrogantly steps into the role with the same lines as that of Caesar, without the same love for Rome as Brutus.
Michael Gene Sullivan, director, has with this streamlined cast distilled the chilling question that perhaps plagues the recently emancipated nations in Africa. How else can one explain the tyranny that plagues most nations today? What is missing in this story is Western influence, the coin purses, the weapons, the bribes and other prizes that tempt leaders to sell out to multinationals.
Reinstitution of slavery is the argument Cassius gives as reason why Caesar has to be stopped. Bondage takes many forms though, and murder binds Brutus to Caesar permanently. When his breath leaves, Brutus's soul is tied to Caesar's headstone.
David Moore's Brutus is troubled. He doesn't rest from the moment Cassius whispers into his ear doubts about Caesar to his untimely and cowardly death. Brutus realizes he is over his head in debt. He is without means to fund the battle with Mark Anthony's forces . . . and that worries him.
Where are the multinationals with funds for Rome? Rome is like America in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was the super power then, so no governments thought to come to its aide, since the opposite was usually true. Rome supplied protection and support to neighboring countries in need.
Sunday AACC had a pre-show discussion with the fighter choreographer, Durand Garcia, who demonstrated how he created the scenes (7) for the show. He and his partner then performed one fight scene with bamboo sticks and then with real machetes. later in the play when we saw that scene enacted, it was really cool watching how the two actors, Caesar and Decius (actors, L. Jeffery Moore and Tristen Cunningham) played it out.
It is an intriguing play, certainly a great story, one which has resonance currently as once again Americans prepare to go to the polls with the hopes that the leader loves his country as Brutus says he does and wants to serve, its citizens, as perhaps Caesar wanted to, but wasn't allowed.
Julius Caesar is up at AASC through April 1 at the African American Art and Culture Complex, 762 Fulton Street, San Francisco. Visit African-AmericanShakes.org