Talk about timing! The fourth Steppenwolf NOW production – “Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!” – comes on the heels of that now infamous Oprah interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
Originally written in 2018 by Vivian J.O. Barnes in an attempt to examine the affect of Black women on powerful institutions, it is directed by Soulpepper Theatre Company’s artistic director, Weyni Mengesha. The 35-minute, filmed play features two actresses who fit their parts beautifully. In a face-to-face meeting, the majestic Sydney Charles’ character, The Duchess, is to educate on protocol the eager, brash, vibrant, soon-to-be Duchess, played by Celeste M. Cooper. Her character is about to marry into the royal family.
There are proper ways of doing things, and rules – from how to sit (“till you feel like you’ll fall off the edge of the seat”) to sitting down after a person of higher rank. There are hidden costs to being “the luckiest girl in the world” whom everyone is watching.
Playwright Barnes states her play “explores the question of what it means to have a Black woman entering institutions that seem eager to have you, but aren’t necessarily built to support you,” and how you adapt in order to survive once you’re inside, as Charles’ character illustrates. In the 35 minutes available, she does that; Barnes also admits the play was partly inspired by Markle.
Charles’ regal Duchess has just given birth, and at the play’s beginning is rehearsing how to greet the soon-to-be new Duchess. And despite frequent pain, she’s taking time out of her schedule to coach Cooper, a character very much like you or me. (I kept thinking do you know what you’re in for?)
But the play eventually takes on a sinister tone. Sophisticated Charles is somehow able to maintain a dead look in her eyes, and discusses her ability to feel detached from her body.
Every time Cooper’s character is left alone in the room, she ingests petals from a bouquet on the table, finally confessing she hasn’t eaten in over two months to fit into that wedding gown. The outfit she has worn to the meeting shows too much skin, and she reveals nightmares of paparazzi. She’s told to dump her sneakers.
Both characters engage in a great scene of tearing apart memos that suggest “a little less cocoa, a lot more beige,” but it’s Cooper’s advocating a more disturbing solution that is frightening and powerful. Both actresses amaze from start to finish.
“Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!” illustrates forfeited abilities to speak and be yourself, perhaps especially indicative of Black women. Barnes, who is still in graduate school, has provided an intriguing play about a demanding public life and a system that is not particularly welcoming.
• Regina Belt-Daniels has been involved with the theater in many capacities from acting to directing to stage management. She hopes to soon return to live theater with live audiences.
IF YOU VIEW
WHAT: “Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!” by Steppenwolf NOW
WHEN: Available through Aug. 31
COST: $75 membership for six virtual plays; discounted for students, teachers, essential workers
INFORMATION: Steppenwolf.org/now, 312-335-1650