This season, "Much Ado About Nothing" is making Shakespeare in the Park history. The production, which begins performances at the Delacorte Theater Tuesday, transports the Bard’s work into the future and tells its story with an all-black cast for the very first time at the Central Park venue.
"We’re telling a bold new story that has a presence and a place in today’s world," says Grantham Coleman, who’s appearing as the male lead of the Public Theater production from Tony-winning director Kenny Leon.
He shares stage time with "Orange is the New Black" actress Danielle Brooks, who in the role of Beatrice, becomes an outspoken force in the inclusive romantic comedy that challenges gender roles.
"I was sold because a role like Beatrice doesn’t come around often for someone like me, a black, plus size woman. It felt bigger than myself," says Brooks, who makes her Shakespeare in the Park debut four years after appearing in Broadway’s "The Color Purple." The role of Beatrice was previously held by "American Horror Story" actress Lily Rabe in 2014, the fourth time the Delacorte hosted "Much Ado."
Poached by the director personally, it’s Brooks who unknowingly helped shape the 2019 version of this classic work focused on the sparring Beatrice and Benedick (Coleman), who are tricked into admitting their true feelings for each other.
"She was the first choice," says Leon ("A Raisin in the Sun"). "She’s a beautiful, talented, plus size advocate and I wanted to create a Beatrice no one had ever seen before. I don’t know what I would have done if she said no. I started building it from her."
Diversity is at the foundation of Leon’s version of "Much Ado."
After scoring the Juilliard-trained Brooks, he decided to up the production’s inclusivity by casting women in several supporting parts traditionally played by men.
"I started thinking about what ‘Much Ado’ says about male and female relationships and cast it in an unexpected way. At the heart of the play is, ultimately, community," Leon says. And so, he set his "Much Ado" in Atlanta, in the year 2020 (when the presidential race is underway).
"I wanted to set it in a community that was embracing those values we stand for in America: gender equality, racial equality and the fact that love always wins. That’s what I want the country to be about now."
The Atlanta setting charted the course for Leon to create a rare all-black cast of the Bard’s work, but he says he didn’t aim to do it from the start. When cast, neither Brooks nor Coleman knew they’d be a part of an all-black production.
The casting fell into place one actor at a time, Leon says.
"It’s very important … we don’t get to do this a lot. This is the first time. Everyone is very mindful of that," Coleman ("The Americans") says.
For Brooks, being a part of the diverse cast means helping to "expand opportunities for people who look like me."
"And reminding those people that anything is possible," she says. "Viola Davis, LaChanze, and Audra McDonald are a few of the women that have shown me that anything is possible, and it’s now time for me to pay that forward for the next generation."
‘Much Ado About Nothing’ runs Tuesday through June 23 at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. For details on free tickets visit publictheater.org.