When musician, actress, director, and playwright Whitney White looks at “Macbeth,” she sees “a couple going for what they want in all the wrong ways.”
William Shakespeare, she says, was reflecting the world around him in his plays, writing about family drama, teenage love, a Black leader, history, guilt — all issues that are still with us even 400 years later. As a Black girl growing up in Chicago, she says, she found many of his words profoundly moving.
“Think about the male fragility revealed in ‘Is this a dagger I see before me?’” White says. “Or a woman forced to act like a man if she wants power: ‘Unsex me here.’ ”
“Of course, some of his language is indecipherable now,” she says. “I mean, who knows what a doublet is today. But Shakespeare speaks to everyone with so much emotion — ambition, fear, doubt, weakness, love, the stories still resonate.”
Using music to drive the production, White’s “Macbeth in Stride” tells the story of murderous ambition from Lady Macbeth’s perspective. The work is getting its world premiere at the American Repertory Theater’s Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge, starting with preview performances Saturday.
“Music helps set a mood,” says White, “and the music of the ‘60s and ‘70s is ‘grounded rock’ that evokes a certain time, place, and feeling for people.”
While the show’s music is inspired by vintage rock, including the sounds of the Doors, Ike and Tina Turner, the Rolling Stones, and others, White has written all original tunes, orchestrated by music director Steven Cuevas and performed onstage by Cuevas (keyboards), Chris Hanford II (guitar), Bobhartley “Boushe” Etienne (bass), and Jordan Carter (drums). Actor/singers in the cast include White as Woman, Charlie Thurston as Man, and Phoenix Best, Kira Helper, and Reggie D. White as the Witches. (Whitney White also plays some piano, and Thurston contributes accordion.)
“This is not a regular play,” says White. “The band helps give it a concert feel.”
White’s script weaves the language of Shakespeare’s bloody tragedy together with contemporary comments — some of the first lines of the opening song are “What’s the difference ‘tween what you’re told and what you know” — to call out how a story can shift depending on the teller. By focusing on Lady Macbeth and what happens when love and a desire for power become entangled, White reveals the excitement and frustration of a woman whose quest is thwarted.
“We know this story,” she says. “The man gets the opportunity; a woman has no other way to get what she wants except to push her husband forward.”
An ambitious woman, she says, is still seen as evil and dangerous today.
“I was raised by a single mom, as well as aunts and cousins — so many women who looked after each other,” White says. “And I get emotional just saying this, but the message was always, ‘Just make do, be careful, don’t aim too high, bow your head, don’t you dare want too much.’”
“Macbeth in Stride” is the first of a five-part series reimagining Shakespeare’s women that White has been developing since 2015. The idea began while she was in the Brown University/Trinity Repertory Company graduate program, and she continued to develop it with collaborator-directors Tyler Dobrowsky and Taibi Magar. Each of the pieces, which have been commissioned by ART, focus on an iconic woman in the Shakespeare canon, and the music that moves their stories along reflects the rhythm White says is appropriate for each character — a pop sound for Juliet, Solange’s combination of funk, soul, hip-hop, and pop for Cleopatra, a blues vibe for Emilia (Iago’s wife in “Othello”), and … well, she says, she’s keeping the fifth character under wraps for now.
While the concert-plays have been in development over the past six years, White has also been busy directing, including “What to Send Up When It Goes Down” (ART, Public Theatre), “The Amen Corner” (Shakespeare Theatre), and “An Iliad” (Long Wharf Theatre), among others. She says she is grateful to her collaborators: Dobrowsky and Magar, whom she’s known for a long time, Cuevas, choreographer Raja Feather Kelly, and the ART creative and production team, who she says have supported her as a musician, performer, and director.
“Collaboration keeps the work honest,” she says. “Different voices are what we need right now as we excite audiences and provide opportunities to keep artists safe and employed.”
MACBETH IN STRIDE
Created and performed by Whitney White. Presented by American Repertory Theater. At the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, Oct. 23-Nov. 14. Black Out performance, designated for Black-identifying audience members, on Oct. 29. Tickets from $25. americanrepertorytheater.org