It’s difficult to make it out of any high school or college literature class without having to read at least one of Shakespeare’s plays, even if that means moans and complaints from the class. But one local Shakespeare group wants to change that negative mindset toward the Bard’s work.
The Bards of Birmingham is composed of mainly high-school students who are enthusiastic about Shakespeare’s work. Since they started in 2010, the group has put on 13 productions of Shakespeare’s works. Their most recent work in progress is an adaptation of the famous Romeo and Juliet.
However, their version has a bit of a twist to it. In this modern version of the tale of the original star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet are both female. Keeping the same names and script of the original playwright, the group decided to gender-swap several characters, including at least one of the title roles.
“We decided to cast it gender-blind, which gave us the risk of having two girls or two guys playing Romeo and Juliet,” explained Laura Bernstein, executive director of Bards of Birmingham.
For them, the importance of telling this story with an LGBTQ lens is particularly poignant.
“For me personally, it was really exciting because I’m an openly lesbian young woman, so it’s being able to have that representation that’s so important,” said Emma Camp, a sophomore at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, who will play Juliet.
“Especially growing up, it’s really hard to be something you don’t know exists,” Camp added. “Being able to be a part of a production that gave representation to LGBTQ relationships and also put them within the context of the fact that thousands of LGBT youth kill themselves every year — it’s giving light to that as well, especially in the current political climate that is increasingly homophobic and increasingly transphobic. So [the play] is something that tackles that issue with a story that everybody knows,” Camp said.
To Camp, the importance of representation is reinforced by the CDC’s statistic that lesbian, gay and bisexual youths are more than twice as likely to attempt suicide as their heterosexual peers. This number increases even more when transgender youth are included; the CDC estimates that 25 percent of transgender youths have reportedly attempted suicide.
“There’s so much hate and so much meaningless death in this play,” said Sara Bateman, a Homewood High School student who plays Benvolio, Romeo’s cousin who is typically portrayed as male. ”There’s no reason for it [the deaths] except for this: For some reason we can’t seem to break down these walls and actually care about each other and, as Emma said, it seems like those hate walls are building, and this play is representative of what can happen if you just don’t talk to each other and try to resolve problems peacefully.”
Abbe Coulter, who plays Romeo, added that the production is “about spreading the message. It’s important to see this famous piece of literature that means so much to the public in general just put in context with these issues and to show that Shakespeare really is timeless and that it can still apply to the things that are going on now.”
This modern context is a big part of why the group decided to set the play in 1989 Verona, Alabama, as opposed to its original setting of Italy, where the story Shakespeare adapted was written in the 1500s.
“There was never even a question of, ‘Would somebody marry a woman to a woman?’ in the Renaissance. There’s no way that would have happened. Now you get a hippie priest from California in 1989 who has landed in Verona, Alabama — Yeah, maybe he’ll do that,” said Bernstein.
They also couldn’t place it in a too modern context where everything could be solved by a simple text.
“I think, also, something that’s interesting and makes Romeo and Juliet a little bit more sympathetic [is] if they’re gay and living in Alabama in the 1980s. Or just gay and living in Alabama, and they’re having more put on them it’s not just, ‘Oh, this person I met a few days ago has killed themselves.’ They also have this other pressure,” said Bateman.
“It also gives extra emphasis to the teenager-ness of them, because, in the Renaissance, the teenager didn’t exist.” Camp chimed in. She explained that setting the play in the ‘80s, when teen culture was prominent, helps to add sympathy for young people having no control of their lives.
“It also helps to have it set in Alabama, because it makes it much more personal,” Coulter added. “This isn’t some far-off thing. This is something that could happen to kids here.”
The play is hosted by Unity of Birmingham, whose general message from the minister, Charles Perry, was ‘Go for it.’
“I really love being able to do this,” Perry said. “It’s a fantastic group of kids and people supporting them and Laura does amazing work. It’s a nice way of interacting with the community as well, and I think supporting the youth in whatever way we can should be a big part of the mission of anybody that says they’re here to serve.”
Highlighting the current political situation, Perry said there were protesters outside of the church a month and a half earlier, reportedly advocating against homosexuality.
“There are people here that need to hear that it’s okay to be who we are, that we’re all still loved,” Perry said.
Bateman hopes that audiences seeing the production will realize that Romeo and Juliet isn’t antiquated. “They’re not stories that don’t involve us,” she said. “These are our lives. Shakespeare wrote about our lives 500 years before we were even thought into any kind of existence.
Camp added that the play “isn’t something dreamed up by a stuffy old dead white dude and that’s meant to stay there. This isn’t something that you’re meant to see high schools do. This isn’t something that is over. This isn’t something you have to trudge through. It’s new in a lot of ways, and you can innovate upon it. You can learn from it.”
Coulter said the play has potential to change views about Shakespeare. “We want people to come away with a different impression of what they thought Shakespeare is all about. We want people to see how timeless it is, and we definitely want, especially with this play, for them to get the message that has been discussed for years and years, which is that hate is destructive,” Coulter added.
Bards of Birmingham, Bernstein said, is open to new troupe members. “I’ll take them a soon as they can read, and once they’re capable of being in rehearsals without a parent because rehearsals are closed,” she explained. Adults in the troupe generally serve as acting mentors to the younger kids. The troupe’s age range, though, is generally 5-25, with preferential casting going to those under the age of 18.
Romeo and Juliet will be performed at Unity Church of Birmingham, which is located at 2803 Highland Ave., on April 21 and 22 at 7 p.m. and April 23 at 2:30 p.m. To purchase tickets, visit bardsofbirmingham.com or purchase tickets at the door.