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Tributes to Shakespeare Spring Up Throughout Harlem

By Gustavo Solis | August 13, 2014 12:19pm
 In honor of the bard's 450th birthday, four different Harlem production companies have paid tribute to Shakespeare this summer.
Shakespeare in Harlem
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HARLEM — There’s no shortage of Shakespeare in the neighborhood.

Four different Harlem production companies have been paying tribute to the Bard all summer in honor of his 450th birthday.

On Monday, the Harlem Shakespeare Festival kicked off at the New York Academy of Music in East Harlem. Over on the west side, the Pulse Ensemble Theatre is performing "Romeo and Juliet" at Riverbank State Park, which finishes its summer run on Aug. 17.

Each production company is putting a Harlem spin on timeless classics.

Pulse's production of Romeo and Juliet uses the famed playwright’s original language but sets the story in the present day by using modern music and attire, Brian Richardson, the company manager, said.

Other companies are taking a more academic approach.

“Because our mission is to help actors of color reach their full potential, we will perform a history of black Shakespearean actors,” Debra Byrd, founder of Take Wings and Soar Productions, which organized the festival along with the New Heritage Theatre Group.

That history dates back to the 1820’s in New York's African Grove Theater.

Byrd was joined by two award winning classical actors, Dathan B. Williams and Julius Hollingsworth, on stage as the three portrayed the lives of Ira Aldridge, Henriette Vinton Davis and Paul Robeson.

Early Shakespearean actors, some of whom were children of slaves, had a hard time getting jobs in the United States so they moved to Europe where crowds were more accepting. Others stayed and fought for equality, Byrd said.

Another production company, The Classical Theatre of Harlem, finished its run of "Romeo and Juliet" at Marcus Garvey Park in July. They also put on four performances of "MacBeth" at 151th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue over the weekend. Their summer season is over.

At least one of the neighborhood's theater troupe has gotten some attention from the Bard's homeland.

The Shakespearean Birthplace Trust, an England-based charity that watches over some of the Bard’s most famous historical sites, picked the Harlem's Shakespeare Festival as one of its stops for a 14-city North America tour.

“London has come to Harlem to celebrate us,” said Byrd said.

The festival also kicks off the season, which runs through May 2015 and features an adaptation of "All’s Well That Ends Well" set to the civil rights era and an all-female production of "Othello."

They will hold productions throughout Harlem, she added.