Stage: Wednesday, January 30, 2003
Brother Mac
Thru Feb 23 at Jubilee Theatre, 506 Main Street, FW. $8-25. 817-338-4411.
Party People

Jubilee transports Macbethto Oakland, circa 1969.


Jubilee Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet last year proved there is still life in the tired old standby. With Brother Mac, Jubilee works a similar magic on Shakespeare’s equally well known, and overly familiar, Macbeth.

As with the story of the two lovers in fair Verona, practically everybody has read Macbeth, seen it performed, or at least knows the story. Since it has a stronger storyline, Jubilee can concentrate on interpretation. Face it: A dark, blood-drenched tale of murder and madness is always going to rank way cooler than a sugary-sweet romance, even one with the most downbeat denouement.

As the company did with R&J, Jubilee likewise switches the time, setting, and title of Macbeth. Here, Scottish kings and armies of yore have been transformed into African-American grassroots organizers in Oakland, California, circa 1969. The political maneuvering and backstabbing occur not among royalty but within the People’s Liberation Party. The PLP (an obvious nod toward the Black Panthers and Yippies of the era) mix counterculture utopianism with the more aggressive by-any-means-necessary civil rights activism of Malcolm X.

As the play begins, Brother Mac (Keron L. Jackson) and Bobby (Steven Griffin) narrowly escape after bravely holding their own against “the pigs” in a local park demonstration. Heading home, the pair encounters three weird sisters (witches?) who predict Brother Mac’s thrilling, though problem-filled, rise to minister of defense and eventually to party chairmanship.

Sure enough, chairman Duncan (William Hass) quickly promotes Brother Mac to the defense post. Pleased as punch, Brother Mac runs to his girlfriend Baby (Teekoyah Nickson playing the Lady Macbeth role) to share with her his good fortune and the weird sisters’ strange prophecy. So starts the trouble.

Brother Mac is content to enjoy his new title and let nature run its course, but Baby, much darker of heart and ambition, prepares to move matters forward unnaturally. Soon enough, mankind’s hubris, which so enamored the old playwrights, kicks in, and the fun begins.

Fastforwarding fate leads the couple into violent and deceitful acts, which, because of that conscience thing, lead the duo down into insanity. Eventually, they get their inevitable comeuppance. Brooding, dark stuff for sure, but gripping throughout.

And kudos to Jubilee for taking a different tack this time out. Though rarely lightweight, Jubilee productions tend to play mostly upbeat and humorous. Brother Mac, on the other hand, allows little breathing room in its claustrophobic intensity. There is little humor or lightness here, and the show is better for it. It’s impossible to avert your eyes from the stage.

Strangely enough, and in a brilliant twist, many of the major moments occur not onstage but on a screen above the stage. Slide-show shots of Brother Mac, shedding blood, relay horror much more convincingly than any onstage enactments of these deeds would have.

The main murder, that of Duncan, is further enhanced by the chaos of Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner.” (Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain” would have been perfect, if probably too obscure for most audience members.)

In fact, as with almost all Jubilee productions, music plays a pivotal role. Heavy doses of funk, soul, and Motown punctuate key scenes. That some choices — Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” for instance — were recorded after 1969 is beside the point. My only quibble is that I wish the company would have substituted some political music, such as the work of Sly Stone, for those poppish Motown sounds.

Another plus is the actors’ abilities to sustain the required level of dread to portray the proper mood. The appearance of Duncan’s ghost, truly frightening here, could have easily slipped into silly parody in lesser hands; likewise Brother Mac and Baby’s unhinged flights of lunacy. And though the play employs modern vernacular, chunks of Shakespeare’s original verse seamlessly fit in without feeling clunky.

On the downside, some scenes rush by too fast to fully sink in. Nickson, who is superb, gets cheated slightly with too little stage time. Some of the actors also came across wooden and not yet comfortable in their roles — though, in fairness, this was the maiden performance. In spite of such setbacks, Brother Mac ranks as the highlight of Jubilee’s already solid season.

Lastly, the big, accidental surprise is how relevant Brother Mac’s war-in-the-heartland theme suddenly plays. Such black power idealism was fondly looked upon as quaint and dated not so long ago. Given the socio-political climate since 9/11 (including the anti-war demonstrations), such anti-establishment sentiments play positively spot-on again.

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