“Merry Wives” Shakespeare in the Park by the Public Theater is at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, July 5 – August 29, 2021. There is show and ticket information at publictheater.org
Public Theater Associate Artistic Director and Resident Director Saheem Ali directs Jocelyn Bioh’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives of Windsor.”
We haven’t seen the play or spoken with the creators, but these are our impressions.
The Merry Wives of Windsor
The William Shakespeare comedy was first published in 1602. It’s also known as “Sir John Falstaff and the Merry Wives of Windsor.”
Falstaff is kind of a disgusting slob of a knight. Being broke, he decides to court some wealthy married women. [Oh, oh, oh. Do you recognize the character? OMG. It’s the Falstaff President. LOL. The Public Theater is so clever if you look under the sheets. Falstaff must have small hands.]
Falstaff’s servants refuse to help him so, “You’re Fired!”
In revenge, the servants warn the wives and their husbands. The wives decide to play some tricks on Falstaff. His misadventures include hiding in a smelly laundry basket that gets dumped in the river, masquerading as an old woman who gets beaten up, and finally being humiliated in front of the whole town. [Have we heard this story somewhere recently?] Oh, and the group wedding action at the ending includes a Gay marriage, so everybody gets to play a part.
Several plays and operas have included the Falstaff character including the “Henry IV” plays and Verdi’s “Falstaff” opera.
West African Harlem
This story is set in southern Harlem’s West African community. African culture in the Americas is mostly West African from the Yoruba and Dahomey traditions. There are also Kongo traditions from Central Africa.
Harlem’s West African community is centered in “Le Petite Senegal” which is 116th St between Frederick Douglass Blvd and Lenox Ave / Malcolm X Blvd. The neighborhood is a home of immigrants from Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Guinea, Mali and Senegal.
The area is also important in Black History. The young Malcolm X once worked in an office at what is now the Masjid Malcolm Shabazz mosque. That’s why Lenox Ave is also called Malcolm X Blvd.
The Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market is the best place we know in New York City to buy West African products. The cloth in particular is really beautiful.
Merry Wives is Dipped in Double Meaning
The main themes of Shakespeare’s play include jealousy, revenge and social class. The parallels between the slob knight Falstaff and the Fake President are hilarious. Life is stranger than fiction. Wait there’s more.
The original “Merry Wives” was one of the first Shakespearean plays to be performed in England after the Interregnum. This was a period from 1649 to 1660 when a Puritan-dominated republican government (we’re not making this up) imposed its views on the rest of England. Theatre, gambling, and even Christmas and Easter were banned.
Our peculiar American form of social stratification, racism and white supremacy are very English. Historically, if you weren’t English, you were a soulless devil who could be used, abused, family-separated and worked to death. The English didn’t only target people of color, Welsh, Scottish and Irish got similar treatment.
The period after the Interregnum is known as the Restoration. That sounds like what we are just starting now under a new administration, and also after a long year or two of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In yet another example of art imitating life, the House of Windsor is the current English royal family – who at this very moment is having its own racial reckoning.
The Public Theater presents Shakespeare, but it’s Shakespeare for our time.
The Kenyan American Ali has produced several outstanding Public Theater radio plays during the COVID-19 shutdown. He almost makes you long for the Golden Age of Radio, the work has been that interesting.
Bioh is a Ghanaian American actor and playwright with a Masters in Playwriting from Columbia University.
She was an original cast member of the Broadway show, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.” She won a Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play for “Everybody” at the Signature Theater.
As a student, Bioh realized that if she wanted to act in good roles as an African American woman, she would have to write them. ¡Bravo!
We have to create our own shared future because the one that’s been handed down to us is badly lopsided.
Merry wives make merry lives.