CAMBRIDGE — In Whitney White’s “Macbeth In Stride,” there’s a number titled “Reach for It” that’s sung by a character called (simply and meaningfully) Woman and contains the line: “The way that it goes, power’s not supposed to look like me.”
Interrogating the way that it goes — the way that it’s always gone for women, and especially Black women — is the driving force behind this electric work, now premiering at the Loeb Drama Center in a production by the American Repertory Theater.
Powered by White’s galvanizing performance as Woman, the 80-minute, intermission-less “Macbeth In Stride” delineates the gulf between women’s opportunities and their capabilities in broad but incisive strokes. It’s built on White’s script, scenes from “Macbeth,” and nearly a dozen original R&B, gospel, rock, and pop songs composed by her and performed by an onstage band.
The question that hovers over “Macbeth In Stride” is posed to the audience by White early in the performance: “What’s the story that framed you before you were even you?” One story in particular, “Macbeth,” serves as White’s crucible, for Woman is also Lady Macbeth. And it is through that dual prism that White wants us to see, and understand the destructive effects of, the low ceiling imposed on women’s aspirations.
Now, Lady Macbeth may seem like an imperfect vessel for this message. She wasn’t exactly lacking in agency, was she? But White argues that yeah, in a larger sense she was.
She notes that Lady M. recedes to a diminished presence in “Macbeth” after playing the pivotal role in bringing her husband to power. (Once Macbeth achieves the throne in “Macbeth In Stride,” White wears a flimsy tiara that seems to underscore the queen’s marginality.) She points out that Lady Macbeth’s eventual death takes place offstage. She laments “all the great women” in Shakespeare “who never seem to make it out of the plays alive,” citing Cleopatra, Juliet, and Emilia. She asks, in the guise of Lady Macbeth: “Why not give power directly to me?”
“Macbeth In Stride” makes an urgent case for taking it, not waiting for it to be given (name-checking Tina Turner along the way), while also acknowledging the structural impediments that can lie in the way — including, possibly, love.
Vibrantly directed by Tyler Dobrowsky and Taibi Magar, “Macbeth In Stride” is bolstered by vividly expressive performances from the dynamic trio of Phoenix Best, Kira Sarai Helper, and Reggie D. White as the Witches. Also an asset is Charlie Thurston as Man/Macbeth. It is the Witches who begin the show with a somber procession onto and across the stage, and it is they who cajole Woman/Lady Macbeth (”Reclaim, honey,” one of them urges her) and challenge her, and offer commentary on her actions.
Whitney White clearly demonstrated her adventurousness as a theater-maker in her very first collaboration with the ART, a 2019 production of Aleshea Harris’s “What to Send Up When It Goes Down” that was No. 1 on my year-end top 10 list. In “Macbeth In Stride,” White delivers on her determination, voiced early in the performance, to “just climb all the way in and down” in a search for truths, however uncomfortable. At one point, she asks: “What happens when a Black woman’s only way up — is by violent means?” Then, addressed to the audience: “What are you willing to do to get what you need? To get what you want — Women, queer folk, and othered people out there?”
We’re in a cultural moment when oft-told stories are being recontextualized onstage to foreground those long-muted voices. One example is “Six,” a concert-with-story-line that was presented at the ART two years ago and opened this month on Broadway, and gives the six wives of Henry VIII a platform to get their long-overdue say.
“Macbeth In Stride” is a vitalizing addition to that theatrical category. It’s the first work in an ambitious, five-part “musical exploration” by White, commissioned by the ART, of “Shakespeare’s Women and ambition.”
The overall title of the series is “Reach for It.” After experiencing “Macbeth In Stride,” the challenge will be waiting for it.
MACBETH IN STRIDE
Created by Whitney White. Codirected by Tyler Dobrowsky and Taibi Magar. Choreography, Raja Feather Kelly. Music direction, Steven Cuevas. Presented by the American Repertory Theater at Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge. Through Nov. 14. Tickets start at $25. 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org