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The Merry Wives of Le Petite Senegal
A Black American Falstaff and his significations
Jacob Ming-Trent as Falstaff and Jennifer Mogbock as Madam Ford in the Public Theater’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor
The Merry Wives of Windsor is not one of my favorite Shakespeare plays.
The central comic plot, in which the merry wives of the title (Madams Page and Ford) simultaneously foil Falstaff’s efforts to bed them and force Mr. Ford to confront the tyrannous nature of his jealousy, is basically an excellent Three’s Company episode, which is certainly fun enough. But Falstaff himself is an empty husk of the character we meet in the Henry IV plays, with little if any of his wit, exuberance or melancholy.
Meanwhile, the other major plot thread—the contest for the hand of Anne Page between her father’s preferred choice (the dim-witted and shy Slender), her mother’s (the conceited malapropism-spouting Doctor Caius), and her own (the ardent Fenton)—has never held much interest for me. Shakespeare had already wrung such powerful and complex emotions out of secret elopements in the face of parental opposition—not just with Romeo and Juliet but with Jessica and Lorenzo, who have about as much time on stage as Anne and Fenton do—that I can’t help but be disappointed by the thin characterization here.
Finally, I’ve never warmed to the spectacle of Act V’s pinching fairies. In most productions I’ve seen, it felt like enforced fun, neither genuinely frightening nor truly funny.
So I went into the Public Theater’s production at the Delacorte with limited expectations, and was pleased to find them exceeded. Director Saheem Ali has set his Merry Wives (adapted by Jocelyn Bioh) in contemporary Harlem among a thriving and striving bourgeois community of West African immigrants, and the transposition from a thriving and striving bourgeois town in the 17th-century English Midlands works pretty well seamlessly. The costumes (by Dede Ayite) are gorgeous, the accents are entrancing, and the moveable set opens up to make full use of the park in the African-inflected pinching scene. I could watch and listen to Pascale Armand and Jennifer Mogbock as Madams Page and Ford respectively all day.
But there’s one aspect of the transposition that I want to highlight here, not in a critical way, but because I think it sheds some important light on how satire works (and Merry Wives is a satire, or, rather, a farce wrapped in a satire, much as A Comedy of Errors is a farce wrapped in a romance), and how contemporary sensitivities can get in its way.
In Shakespeare’s play, Falstaff is set apart from the society around him because he is a knight. It’s a social distinction that he is inordinately proud of, and that (he feels) gives him license to behave in a predatory manner toward his social inferiors. The Delacorte production also sets Falstaff apart, but in a very different way. He’s one of very few characters on stage to sport an American accent. I can’t imagine that’s an accident, particularly when Falstaff also dresses, walks and generally behaves differently from most of the rest of the cast. They, the African immigrants, observe distinct rules of etiquette, are carefully dressed and well put-together, walk quickly and very upright, get highly emotional around questions of honor and dignity, and are either small business owners or wage earners in service jobs. Falstaff (playfully played by Jacob Ming-Trent) does none of these things. He dresses in a loose and slovenly manner; he shuffles, sidles and dances across the stage; the main feelings he expresses are appetite and fear; and he has no visible means of support. All of these choices suit Falstaff’s character as a lazy and amoral rogue, and none of them diminish either his charm or his wit; we’re supposed to enjoy Falstaff, and we do. But it surely signifies something that these attributes are attached to the primary non-immigrant character on stage.
Here’s what it signified to me. The production is set in Harlem, a historically important Black American neighborhood that has been transformed in recent years, not only by predominantly white gentrification but also by immigration—very much including Black immigration. About a third of New York’s Black population today is of immigrant origin, mostly from the Caribbean but increasingly from various parts of Africa. Micro-neighborhoods like Harlem’s Le Petite Senegal are the real-life background for the world of the play. Inevitably, the interaction between immigrant and native-born populations involves competition as well as cooperation, resentment as well as appreciation, fruitful cultural exchange as well as fear of displacement or assimilation. That’s been part of the natural ferment of life in an immigrant city like New York from its origins. By characterizing Falstaff the way this production did, what it said to me was: this is a production that takes an African immigrant perspective on these matters. It’s a story from their world—and from the perspective of their world, Falstaff is something of an outsider, something of a threat, but mostly something of a buffoon, a figure of fun.
That makes the play mean something. It gives edge to its satire. Falstaff isn’t just a roguish character who deservedly gets comeuppance; he also stands for something larger. In Shakespeare’s play, that something is related to his status as a knight and the relationship that medieval relic may have with the emerging bourgeois world. At the Delacorte, that something felt to me like it had to be related to the status of native Black American culture in the eyes of a new and rising Black immigrant population.
I want to stress: I think these are all good things, not because I share the production’s perspective, but because I think satire needs to have a perspective, and perspectives need to be specific. The view from nowhere isn’t conducive to satire, and for that very reason our era’s intense sensitivity around characterization and whether it is invidious makes satire extremely difficult (except for satire of that very sensitivity). So I was genuinely pleased that even though Ibram X. Kendi’s best-selling book has an entire chapter on invidious stereotypes that African immigrants have about native Black Americans, and vice versa, the Public Theater could put on a production like this that puts those stereotypes to work, not to provoke hate, but to provoke joy and laughter.
There was one twist, though, that I think the production may have missed. They made a useful choice in having Anne Page’s true lover, Fenton (MaYaa Boateng), be a woman. The audience immediately understood why her traditional African parents might not approve of such a match, and it thereby helped us understand how a couple who were so sensible and unconcerned about Falstaff (Mr. Page never fears his wife will be unfaithful the way Ford suspects his wife) could also be so bull-headed when it came to their daughter. It really did serve the play, and deepened a plot thread that, as I said, I usually find tedious. But I couldn’t help but wonder about a deeper possibility, more connected with the themes of the production, if they had made Fenton clearly American-born. I note that Pistol (Falstaff’s henchman who also is presented as non-African) and Slender (the hapless African suitor favored by Anne’s father) were doubled, both played by Joshua Echebiri. I couldn’t help but wonder how the ending would have landed—the parents foiled and having to reconcile with their daughter’s choice—if Echebiri had played the winning suitor as well, and played him as somewhat akin to Pistol—or even if her successful suitor was Pistol. Could the parents so easily reconcile to the idea that their daughter might have just eloped with someone they saw—rightly or wrongly—as a budding Falstaff?
That would certainly have been less comfortable for the audience, and less in keeping with the goal of being purely joyous. But inasmuch as it would have required revealing what we were actually laughing at all along, it might have done them deeper service.