American Century keeps Voodoo Macbeth under wraps. Here’s what we know.

American Century Theater is ready to open its next show, and what audiences will see, beginning tonight, is a  closely guarded secret. Jack Marshall is betting it will be as shocking and innovative as its original production staged by Orson Welles in 1936.

By all existing accounts, what we now call Voodoo Macbeth rocked New York’s theatre world. On opening night, the 1,223 seat theatre was completely sold out. Thousands gathered outside, blocking traffic for over an hour. At curtain rise, audiences gasped. By evening’s end, they gave a 15 minute standing ovation.

Here’s how, according to Wendy Smith,  The New York Times reported it the next morning:

“The curtain, announced for 8:45, didn’t rise until 9:30. When it finally did, on a jungle scene complete with witches and voodoo drums, the frenzied mood outside the theater was matched by that within.

Uncredited photo of the opening night of Orson Welles' Macbeth (Source: Library of Congress)

Uncredited photo of the opening night of Orson Welles’ Macbeth (Source: Library of Congress)

“Excitment…fairly rocked the Lafayette Theatre,” The New York Times commented the next morning. The spectators were enthusiastic and noisy; they vocally encouraged Macbeth’s soliloquies and clapped vigorously when the second act opened with more than half of the 100-plus cast massed onstage for his coronation ball, a sea of colorful costumes swaying to the strains of Joseph Lanner waltzes.

After the curtain fell on the final grim tableau of the witches holding Macbeth’s severed head aloft as Hecate intoned ominously, “The charm’s wound up!” cheers and applause filled the auditorium for 15 minutes. Not bad for a show directed by an actor barely out of his teens with a cast that was 95 percent amateur, and a scenery and costume budget of $2,000.”

Funded, we might add, by the W.P.A.’s Federal Theater Project.

Hear Jack Marshall talk with Jack Warden about this ground breaking piece of American theatre. -

Jack Marshall, Artistic Director of American Century Theater

Jack Marshall, Artistic Director of American Century Theater

No wonder that Jack Marshall has had Voodoo Macbeth in his sight for years. However, he had no intention of re-creating the audacious Orson Welles production. Instead, he asked himself,  ”How would Welles stage it today?”After all, changing the time and place of a Shakespeare play (Welles set it in a jungle in Haiti) is common now. As is having an all black cast.

Voodoo Macbeth
March 22 – April 13, 2013
Gunston Arts Center - Theatre II
2700 S. Lang Street
Arlington, VA.
Tickets: $35 – $40
PWYC Thurs, Mar 21 and Wed, Mar 27
Thursdays thru Sundays
Details
Tickets

Using the script, he set out to produce a version which would be as frightening and as new as the original – one which would keep the audience on the edge of their seats, unable to guess what was coming next. For that, he needed a director who could get inside the head of Orson Welles. And he found it in Kathleen Akerley, a DC playwright, director, actress and Artistic Director of Longacre Lea, whom he describes as “fearless.”

We can tell you very little about what will greet audiences at Gunston Theatre II when the show opens for previews March 20th.

Except –  it will take place among a battalion of Christian marines stationed in Scotland in 2033.  And that the all-male cast will be led by Joseph Carlson as Macbeth, aided by Frank Britton as Banquo, Matt Dewberry as Lady Macbeth, Will Hayes as Hecate, supported by a host of others. “Plenty of blood”, Marshall promised in the podcast, though he had no idea how much, “and swordplay.”

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Comments

  1. StandingUpForHistory says:

    I’m sorry…take a look at DC and other regional theatre communities and tell me how common an all black cast is. The legacy of this production is, in part, the beginning of Welles carrer, but it’s mostly a watershed moment in American Theatre history because of how it promoted African American theatre as well as African American culture. This is why the National Black Arts Festival revived the production last year.

    Why use this title if the intention is to ignore the main legacy of this watershed event? Especially a production that stood up for the lack of minority roles in American Theatre and instead casts only MALE ACTORS, mostly white, it seems.

    Do your show the way you want–that’s your prerogative–but why use this title without honoring the legacy of what made that production important?

    • Jack Marshall says:

      The so-called “Voodio Macbeth,” as is extensively documented in the program notes and TACT’s Audience Guide for the show, was significant for at least three reasons: a landmark use of an all-African-American cast in a classic play for mixed race audiences, a trend-setting avant garde production of Shakespeare outside its usual setting and time, and the emergence of Orson Welles as a force for innovation in stage art. My position was and is that the first no longer applies. The production is completely consistent with the other two features, however, particularly the last. This is Orson Welles’ script that was used for the production remembered as “The Voodoo MacBeth” and no other: that title seems eminently fair to me, and the best and simplest way to inform the audiences regarding what they are seeing.

      We are not in the business of historical recreations, and when a production’s impact was almost completely due to specific conditions and attitudes that existed 77 years ago and no longer, a recreation is both inadvisable and impossible. The Voodoo MacBeth had an original score that is not available; it also had a cast of over 100 actors who were, by the way, paid peanuts. TACT performs in a black box theater. The choice, and I take responsibility for it as Artistic Director, was to try to recreate the emotional and dramatic impact of Welles’ adaptation in a different time, with different audience attitudes, after what was novel and daring is no longer, in a completely different environment….or not to do the show, Welles’ adaptation, at all. That’s the choice scores of theaters have made since 1936, and all theaters in this city. TACT’s mission compels us to choose otherwise.

      In this day and age, I find a criticism of any production, especially of a play originally set in Scotland, on the basis that the cast isn’t all-black…peculiar. TACT does not tell its directors what races to cast in any roles, in any production, and will not. If non-traditional casting is valid in one direction, it is valid in another, and since Welles’ script, by my research, has only been produced professionally five times since 1936 by generous count, there isn’t much accumulated tradition to go on. Kathleen’s is a mixed-race production of the 1936 Orson Welles’ adaptation that has come to be known as “The Voodoo MacBeth.” If her new and innovative addition to the tradition leads to more companies presenting Orson’s adaptation in the next 77 years than the previous ones, we will regard “The Voodoo MacBeth” as a mission accomplished.

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