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Shakespeare Festival To Showcase Black Artists In June Return To Forest Park

St. Louis Shakespeare Festival's summer show in Forest Park typically draws about 40,000 people per year. [6/28/20]
Credit Phillip Hamer Photography
Phillip Hamer Photography
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival is seeking city approval to invite up to 1,200 audience members to performances of "King Lear" in June.

St. Louis Shakespeare Festival announced it will return to Forest Park’s Shakespeare Glen this year with a production of “King Lear” by artists of color.

The production will be the troupe’s return to live performance since canceling last year’s planned run of “Much Ado About Nothing” after city officials imposed limits on crowd sizes to help keep the coronavirus from spreading.

Festival leaders are confident that Actors’ Equity, the actors union, will approve a coronavirus safety plan that includes outdoor, tented rehearsals and COVID-19 tests for the full company, three times a week.

Director Chris Cofield is associate artistic director of the Classical Theatre of Harlem.
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival
Carl Cofield, associate artistic director of the Classical Theatre of Harlem, will direct the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival's performance of "King Lear" in June.

City officials must also approve the organization’s safety plans, but Producing Artistic Director Tom Ridgely said the show will go on even if the city does not raise its present cap of 250 people at a public gathering.

The Forest Park performance space can accommodate more than 5,000 people; the festival’s plan calls for allowing up to 1,200 people per performance. Spaces will be marked off at the venue to ensure social distancing among attendees.

“It is exciting to think that by June we’ll be at a place at a community level where it’ll be safe to enjoy even modified versions of things like Shakespeare in the park that we all love,” Ridgely said.

The festival’s Forest Park productions typically employ 25 full-time and 53 part-time seasonal workers. The total number of people employed by this production will be slightly larger, Ridgely said, because of new positions such as a coronavirus safety officer and personnel to set up tents and portable generators.

If all goes as planned, the production will be notable as St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s first performance of “King Lear” and as a show created and performed exclusively by artists of color, most of whom are Black.

Carl Cofield, associate artistic director of Classical Theatre of Harlem, will direct the show. André De Shields, who has won Tony, Grammy and Emmy awards, will star as Lear — an aging king who sees his country torn apart after he divides control of it among his daughters. It is considered to be among the most challenging Shakespearean roles.

André De Shields, who will play the title role of "King Lear," has won Tony, Grammy and Emmy awards.
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival
André De Shields, who will play the title role of "King Lear," has won Tony, Grammy and Emmy awards.

St. Louis Shakespeare Festival presented a loose adaptation of “King Lear” in 2018 as the centerpiece of its annual Shakespeare in the Streets project. That production drew parallels between Lear’s partitioned nation and St. Louis, a city often marked by social, political and economic divisions.

“A big part of Carl’s vision was imagining a world where Black people were in the ruling class and were at the center of power,” Ridgely said of the upcoming production.

DeShields won the Tony Award for best featured actor in a musical in 2019 for his role as Hermes in “Hadestown.” He won a Grammy Award the next year for his participation on the cast album. His performance in a television broadcast of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” in 1982 captured an Emmy Award.

“We are in a global reckoning with where we want to go and who we want to be,” Cofield said in a statement. “‘We See You White American Theater’ is the current zeitgeist. For me, this chance to do ‘King Lear’ with André in a bold, vibrant reimagining speaks directly to 13-year-old Carl and seeing brown and Black people at the forefront. To bring this story in this way to St. Louis audiences is something I’m tremendously excited by.”

Performances of “King Lear” will begin June 2 and run through June 27.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.