Star-Crossed in Station North: A 400-year play sheds light on today’s Baltimore

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Juliet (Annie Unger) and Romeo (Michelle Antoinette Nelson)

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared at mobtownblues.com in June 2013.

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Last June’s production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet by Baltimore Performance Kitchen used a centuries-old story to explore very contemporary social issues. In presenting the Bard’s venerable tale (itself based on an earlier Italian novella) of feuding families and ill-fated lovers, director J. Buck Jabaily’s site-specific play exposed fault lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, and generation relevant to today’s Baltimore. [Full disclosure: I was a member of the cast.]

For the play’s setting, Jabaily chose Area 405, a multi-use arts space on the site of a former brewery and fan factory in Greenmount West, one of the neighborhoods that comprise what is now called the Station North Arts & Entertainment District. The building’s transition, from an anchor of the local industrial economy a century ago, to a cultural venue in what is currently an economically distressed area, allowed Jabaily to allude to the tensions that occasionally spring up between Baltimore’s emerging arts community and longstanding residents of the Station North neighborhoods.

In BPK’s retelling, the Capulets represented Baltimore of 1913: staid, conservative, wealthy, and white. The Montagues, by contrast, reflected contemporary Station North residents: younger, less affluent, less formal, more diverse. These distinctions were manifest in the casting of the titular lovers. Juliet was played by Annie Unger, a blonde, hazel-eyed teen just out of high school, while Romeo was played — as a woman — by Michelle Antoinette “LOVE the Poet” Nelson, an African-American spoken-word artist in her early thirties.

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Area 405 courtyard

The venue and casting decisions had a profound impact on the interpretation of the play. Without altering Shakespeare’s text (beyond trimming passages for time and changing the gender pronouns that refer to Romeo), Jabaily crafted a production that touched on themes of racism, sexual orientation, gentrification, and cross-generational friction.

For example, the contempt and outrage that Tybalt (Paul Diem) displays toward Romeo took on topical undertones, given the latter’s interracial, intergenerational, same-sex romance with Juliet. Similarly the street brawls that result in the deaths of Tybalt, Mercutio (Aldo Pantoja), and Paris (Richard Goldberg) were sobering echoes of the violence that continues to plague Baltimore. The production even shed new light on the source of the feud between the two families, which is unexplained in Shakespeare’s text. Since the Capulets and the Montagues represent different periods in the city’s history, their conflict can be attributed to an existential clash of epochs and cultures: the struggle between “old” Baltimore and “new” Baltimore to occupy the same place at the same time.

Just as those boundaries of time and space were peeled back in this rendition, the walls between actors and audience were similarly malleable. The play sbegan in an alley, then moved out onto Oliver Street for Mercutio’s ‘Queen Mab’ speech, before finally proceeding into the Area 405 courtyard for the masquerade ball and the ensuing chain of unfortunate events. The chairs were shuffled and reconfigured according to the demands of different scenes. At times, the audience found themselves leaning in to catch the dialogue above the ambient urban noises of train whistles, police helicopters, bass-heavy car stereos, and talkative pedestrians. Jabaily even reserved a handful of roles — Romeo’s ex-girlfriend Rosaline, Lady Montague, and the fateful apothecary — for adventurous audience members who felt inspired to become part of the show.

In keeping with BPK’s ethos of inclusiveness and reducing boundaries among Baltimore artists and audiences, tickets to ‘Romeo and Juliet’ were free. In the weeks leading up to the show’s opening, Jabaily reached out to members of the Greenmount West community and encouraged neighbors to drop in and check out the play. Each performance began with brief presentations by cast members about the history of Station North and the background of the play.

The result was a Romeo and Juliet that was as far removed from the Shakespeare of floppy hats and flowery accents as Station North is from 16th-century Verona. Like Baltimore itself, Jabaily’s production was earthy, unpretentious, and diverse, by turns absurdly funny and shockingly violent.

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Juliet in her bedroom

The closing scene carried a particularly potent lesson for those of us who love this city. Though the lovers’ suicide marks the climax of the piece, the final action in the play is the reconciliation between the Capulets and the Montagues. Through poetry written centuries ago, Shakespeare reminds us that hope awaits us even on the far side of tragedy, and that we can overcome the bitterest of lines that divide us, so long as we are willing to reach across them and clasp each other’s hands.

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