Theatre is all in the timing. But there’s timing – and then there’s timing.
This week, Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago premiered a new 35-minute play called Duchess! Duchess! Duchess! written by Vivian J.O. Barnes and directed by Toronto’s Weyni Mengesha.
Filmed at the end of last year, the two-hander is about race and royalty, and was inspired by Meghan, Duchess of Sussex’s, experiences as a Black woman marrying into the Royal Family.
And it was always planned to be released online March 10 – long before Meghan and her husband ever had a bombshell tell-all interview with Oprah scheduled.
Now extremely topical, Duchess! Duchess! Duchess! is being covered by theatre critics across the English-speaking world. It was named a critic’s pick by The New York Times and received a four-star review in the Guardian. No mean feat at a time when we’re deluged with digital theatre.
Mengesha, whose day job is artistic director of Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company, tuned in Sunday night to the Oprah broadcast as so many others, texting with Barnes when what was said on television eerily echoed the play they were about to premiere.
To these two Black women watching, the revelations of racism the Duchess experienced in the palace and in the press were not exactly a surprise. “Nothing was really shocking – unfortunately,” Mengesha says.
Duchess! Duchess! Duchess! imagines a chilly character called the Duchess (Sydney Charles) meeting with the more down-to-earth, Soon-to-be Duchess (Celeste M. Cooper) in a private palace room. The former has just given birth to an heir to the throne; the latter is learning the ropes about royal life in advance of a wedding.
It’s a bit as if we’re watching Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, tutor Meghan on the eve of her becoming part of the Royal Family – but if both women were Black.
Parallels to revelations from the Oprah interview are there right off the bat, when the Soon-to-be Duchess doesn’t curtsey to the Duchess. “Sorry, protocol, right,” she says, after being corrected. “I knew that, but I assumed, between us …”
Replies the Duchess: “Don’t assume. Ever.”
In her interview, Meghan similarly acknowledged that she didn’t realize she’d have to curtsy to the Queen in private – and so had to learn how to do so at the last minute right before their first meeting. “I thought genuinely that that was what happens outside, I thought that was part of the fanfare,” she said. “I didn’t think that was what happens inside.”
What happens inside versus what happens outside – where the performance of self ends and self begins – are enduring topics that theatre has explored through the British royals from Shakespeare to Mike Bartlett’s 2014 Olivier-winning “future history play” King Charles III.
What distinguishes Duchess! Duchess! Duchess! is how it examines these issues with the added lens of race. It is an allegory, Barnes has said, about “what it means to be a Black woman entering institutions that seem eager to have you but aren’t necessarily built to support you.”
While the Duchess offers up coping mechanisms for the extra scrutiny at public events, such as pretending you’re not there, the Soon-to-be Duchess is appalled at the idea of becoming a “me-shaped hole.” “You have a body,” she tells the Duchess, as the student becomes the teacher.
But there are surreal, unsettling elements to Barnes’s play, too. A baby wails somewhere out of shot, a clock keeps ominously chiming, and there’s the implication that joining the Royal Family might involve having to have all your teeth replaced.
Adding to the strangeness is the way the filmed play was shot, with the two actors performing in their own apartments because of the pandemic, their images later spliced together into one frame.
Mengesha, who directed from Toronto over Zoom, leans into this in her production in the few moments where the two would normally physically interact; we are watching individuals who are disconnected from each other and the world around them. It’s an aesthetic that lines up well with Barnes’s themes.
This Duchess-centred dystopia feels like it could fit right into 21 Black Futures, Obsidian Theatre’s project of filmed plays airing on CBC Gem that asked Black playwrights from across Canada to respond to the question, “What is the future of Blackness?”
Mengesha also points to Jordan Peele’s movies Get Out and Us, which explore racism through the genre of horror, and Revolution of Love, a futuristic short film she shot recently at Fort York as part of a City of Toronto program called Awakenings. It invites Black, Indigenous and artists of colour to create art that interacts with the city’s history museums.
“We have to imagine the world we want to live in and not necessarily where we are,” she says of these recent swerves away from realism in Black-led film and theatre. “That’s the beauty of art – to see around the corner.”