Theater: Weyni Mengesha Directs New Play Inspired by Meghan, Duchess of Sussex

Weyni Mengesha is the director of the show “Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!,” which is produced by Chicago’s renowned Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The play starts streaming online this week at steppenwolf.org/now. According to Leelai Demoz, Steppenwolf’s associate artistic director and the project's lead producer: "Scripts as short as [this] aren’t staples at major U.S. theaters. But Steppenwolf Now [their newly launched digital platform], a response to the pandemic, allowed for format inventiveness." (WaPo)

The Washington Post

Images of two duchesses linger in playwright Vivian J.O. Barnes’s mind: Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, standing at a lectern, with a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II looming behind her. Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, looking glamorous soon after giving birth. The appearances by Meghan Markle and Kate Middleton — as the titled women are better known — intrigued Barnes all the more because, at least in memory, they were voiceless.

“I can remember how they looked, but I can never remember anything I’ve heard them say,” she says.

Reflecting on those missing words — and on Meghan’s experience as a biracial woman joining a hidebound, traditionally White institution — Barnes wrote “Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!,” a short play that imagines a private conversation between a Black royal and a Black royal-to-be. The play, which was filmed in a no-contact shoot by Chicago’s renowned Steppenwolf Theatre Company, begins streaming Wednesday at steppenwolf.org/now, the Steppenwolf Now virtual stage.

Its paparazzi-lens inspirations notwithstanding, “Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!” is no piece of gossipy fluff. For one thing, the characters are not Kate and Meghan, but fictional figures. For another, the play speaks to deep issues around inclusion, equity and society’s resistance to change.

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“It’s a relatable investigation into how many women feel high up in institutions, specifically if you are in a historically White institution as a Black woman,” says Weyni Mengesha, the show’s director and artistic director of Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company.

Awareness of Meghan’s significance for the British monarchy infused the play, Barnes says. “To see this person — who looks like no one else who’s been in that institution so far — enter it, that to me is a fascinating story and entry point,” the playwright says.

Barnes, 26, caught the performing-arts bug during the lively, dance-infused evangelical church services she attended as a child in Stafford, Va. Later, while enrolled at the University of Richmond, she would study in London, where she binged on theater — a revelation.

A few years ago, the duchess of Cambridge’s soigné appearance right after childbirth — hinting at stringent expectations for her looks and behavior — inspired Barnes to write a monologue for a fictional duchess. Later, Meghan’s marriage to Prince Harry spurred further thought. What if a future Meghan-like figure, after adjusting to oppressive palace norms, were to welcome another woman who looked like her into the royal clan? How would that conversation go? For an assignment at University of California at San Diego, where she is now a third-year MFA student, Barnes turned her monologue into a two-hander.

For research, she delved into scandal-sheet journalism about Britain’s royal women, not so much to fact-find as to understand the reporting’s tone and approach. She was struck by a shift after Harry’s engagement. With Meghan, says Barnes, “the coverage is very different and very racist and invasive in a very different kind of way.”

“Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!” arrives in a culture much besotted with the House of Windsor, as evidenced by Netflix series “The Crown,” as well as the Broadway musical “Diana,” shut down by the pandemic last March. (A Netflix version of “Diana” has been announced.) But Barnes stresses that her characters are merely inspired by the wives of Princes William and Harry. The idea of writing about the real clickbait fixtures, she says, “wasn’t very interesting.”

Instead, Barnes dreamed up the unsettling encounter between her Duchess and Soon-to-Be-Duchess, who spar and commune over the merciless rules, scrutiny and conformism that their rank requires.

Scripts as short as “Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!” (about 35 minutes) aren’t staples at major U.S. theaters. But Steppenwolf Now, a response to the pandemic, allowed for format inventiveness, says Leelai Demoz, Steppenwolf’s associate artistic director and the initiative’s lead producer. Already premiered, for example, and still available to stream with a Steppenwolf Now membership, is “Red Folder,” a 10-minute animated monologue written, directed and illustrated by Rajiv Joseph (“Guards at the Taj”) and voiced by Carrie Coon (FX series ­“Fargo”).

Succinct as it was, Barnes’s one-act appealed to Mengesha, who admired its imaginative vision and felt a personal connection. Mengesha, of Ethiopian heritage, is among the leaders of color who have added diversity to the top ranks of North American theater in recent years. The director says she identifies with Barnes’s characters, who are “trying to bring themselves to their new position, but also fit into the mold that has been around for centuries but that never looked like them.”

Performers Sydney Charles (the Duchess) and Celeste M. Cooper (the Soon-to-Be-Duchess) also say they understand the pressures the characters feel — to fit in, to toe the line, to self-censor as necessary and even to establish automatic mutual camaraderie.

“Theater spaces, most of them are run by non-Black individuals. How comfortable can I be — how Black can I be — in this space? If there is another Black person, are they going to be like me?” Charles asks. “Vivian did a great job in touching on the emotions wrapped up in that specific experience, which translates across the board for any Black American, and Black women specifically.”

“As I came up in this career, there was a lot of silence,” Cooper recalls. “There was a lot of not wanting to ruffle feathers.” Barnes’s play, she adds, asks really hard questions about that kind of quandary.

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