In Athens, there are a people who perform magic, manipulating the world around them while those in power either never see them or write them off as boorish, ignorant folk good only for their service and entertainment.
It’s the story of William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and director James Fowler is moving the Open Fist Theatre Company’s production to Athens, Georgia, in a pre-Civil War period where the fairies and mechanicals are enslaved people while Theseus is a judge and the people of Athens are white plantation owners.
The show will run at the Atwater Village Theatre until Saturday, Aug. 13.
It’s inspired by the line, “That would hang us every mother’s son,” spoken by Bottom, the weaver who is part of an acting company that will play before the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta, rulers of Athens.
“I was stunned to discover how well this concept works with the text,” Fowler said. “It makes sense that the fairies, unseen to the lovers, are invisible to the plantation owners around them because they are enslaved. I imagine African slaves on the plantations as people who, despite horrendous hardship, carried magic. In this production, we’re able to see their magic played out in the lives of the people around them who don’t ever see them.”
Fowler, who has directed and acted in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” said he’d been sitting with this concept for several years. During the pandemic, he did a virtual table reading and later approached Martha Demson, Open Fist’s artistic director, with the vision. Not only did she like it, but she wanted to put it up immediately.
In a very short time — less than a month, he, Demson and the company’s production manager put together a cast with Phillip C. Curry as Oberon, Ash Saunders as Titania, Monazia Smith as Puck, Michael A. Sheppered as Bottom, Debba Rofheart as Peter Quince, Malik Bailey as Mustardseed and Flute, Syanne Green as Peaseblossom and Starvling, Erica Mae McNeal as Cobweb and Snout, Azeem Vecchio as Moth and Snug, Bryan Bertone as Theseus, Heather Mitchell as Hippolyta, Alexander Wells as Egeus, Sandra Kate Burck as Hermia, Dylan Wittrock as Lysander, Anna-Laurie Rives and Ann Wilding alternating as Helena and Devon Armstrong and Nick Mizrahi alternating as Demetrius.
Fowler said that, as a person of color, he’s constantly thinking about how he can fit himself into these worlds that he performs in, particularly Shakespeare where he is set in various time periods, cultures and strange locales. He wondered how this play would work in the world of the Antebellum South.
“I found as I was going through the text that there were harsh lines, like ‘Away, you Ethiop,’ and ‘Hang us every mother’s son,’ you start to see that these people in the original are invisible because they are fairies and they are magical creatures, you start to realize that these fairies can also be invisible in the world of the Antebellum South because the non-BIPOC people at the time didn’t see them,” Fowler said.
In this production, Theseus is a judge who has come in to take over another person’s plantation, which is where he encounters Hippolyta. Titania is the wet nurse for the changeling child of whom Oberon is so jealous.
Fowler promised that this version of “Midsummer” will be filled with magic. He said they researched the era and the kind of magic that was believed in. Puck moves people around, manipulates their bodies and makes them do what Puck wants them to do. Fowler gives her a whip which she can crack.
“You’ve got this image of an enslaved African who is able to lull these young white slavers — or not slavers — to sleep with the crack of a whip and go completely unseen while doing it,” Fowler said.
Oberon carries a sack around his neck, one used by people when picking cotton. But out of it comes magic. Rather than a purple flower used to force love, cotton carries the potion.
Titania is the most powerful sorceress among them, and her magic is carried out with special light and sound effects.
“I want us to look at this story and believe that enslaved peoples could do anything that anyone else could have done in any other world the show is set in,” Fowler said.
It’s also why he has resisted the suggestion to dress the fairies in African masks or clothe them as traditional spirits or entities.
“I was in opposition to that because I felt it made the show more digestible for a wider audience,” Fowler said.
“That wasn’t my objective. Most of the people who lived in 1855 Athens, Georgia, who were of color would have been born in Georgia. They would have had no relation or connection to Africa in that way. I didn’t want to make it easier for us to digest or for us to believe. I wanted to ensure that we looked at enslaved people and believed that they can wield magic like anyone in anywhere else we set the play.”
He also infuses the mechanicals with all the humor that they are known for while allowing more serious elements to shine through. Peter Quince is a British abolitionist who teaches the other mechanicals how to read and encourages those who say they are slow of speech and cannot memorize many lines.
While much is the same, Fowler said there are new and scarier elements. When the mechanicals perform outside of town, they are clearly worried about being caught and the jumpiness about sounds also take on new meaning — these are a people who must be careful.
“We use the language to allow the audience to get into this world,” Fowler said.
As for the lovers, Hermia is a classic Southern belle while Demetrius is a young attorney who looks up to Theseus and wants to impress Egeus, Hermia’s father.
Fowler is working with scenic designer Jan Munroe, who has a great deal of familiarity with the South. Together, they established different worlds on stage. Elements include a slave lean-to with a wooden roof, a platform framed by pillars that indicate a plantation, and a painted mural with Spanish moss and a creek.
“We split the worlds where we have the enslaved African world on one side and another sort of world on the other side,” Fowler said. “We’re hanging Spanish moss from the grid and downstage we’ve got a lot of plants that bring us into the world before us. It really does give you that ‘Big River’ the musical feel.”
Audiences are invited to interpret themselves whether the events actually happened or if it was a dream. Fowler encourages theater goers to see a show that demonstrates clearly that inclusivity works in all forms of theater.
“We have this conversation in theater about honoring BIPOC peoples and stories,” Fowler said.
“I want to ensure that the audience realizes that we can keep telling these stories—there’s been this narrative of ‘burn it down.’ As somebody who has done tons of Shakespeare and tons of Ibsen and tons of Sam Shepherd and all kinds of different shows, I don’t want to burn it all down. I want to be included.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Open Fist Theatre Co.
WHEN: Various times Saturday, June 25, to Saturday, Aug. 13
WHERE: Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Avenue, Los Angeles
COST: $25; $15 for students, seniors and veterans