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‘Voodoo Macbeth’ extols the virtues of cooperation

“Voodoo Macbeth” (2021). Cast: Inger Tudor, Jewell Wilson Bridges, June Schreiner, Jeremy Tardy, Daniel Kuhlman, Wrekless Watson, Ashli Haynes, Gary McDonald, Hunter Bodine, Ephraim López, Isaiah Frizzelle, Kelsey Yates, Skyler Yates. Directors: Dagmawi Abebe, Victor Alonso-Berbel, Roy Arwas, Hannah Bang, Christopher Beaton, Agazi Desta, Tiffany Kontoyiannis Guillen, Zoe Salnave, Ernesto Sandoval and Sabrina Vajraca. Screenplay: Agazi Desta, Jennifer Frazin, Morgan Milender, Molly Miller, Amri Rigby, Joel David Santner, Erica Sutherlin and Chris Tarricone. Web site. Trailer.

Pulling together for the sake of a common objective is undoubtedly a worthy ambition. The spirit of cooperation that goes into such ventures can be tremendously satisfying, especially upon fulfillment. With challenges and obstacles melting away, everyone involved comes one step closer to attainment. But remaining committed to the mutual nature of the endeavor is essential as a group of would-be theatrical professionals discovered for themselves in the staging of a landmark production, the subject of the engaging new historical docudrama, “Voodoo Macbeth.”

The hardships of the Great Depression hit Americans hard. To help compensate for this, under the leadership of President Franklin Roosevelt, the government established the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal agency charged with stimulating the economy and creating jobs for the unemployed throngs looking for work. It was a broad-based initiative that launched a wide array of undertakings, including in the arts. One of the most ambitious of these efforts was the Federal Theatre Project, whose wide-reaching scope sought to provide opportunities for many segments of the acting community, including minorities. And it was through this effort that the Project’s Negro Theatre Unit was established in 1935, a program aimed at promoting stage productions featuring African-American casts, a notably progressive venture for the time.

The Unit was formed by esteemed actress Rose McClendon (Inger Tudor) with the collaboration of seasoned producer/director John Houseman (Daniel Kuhlman). To give the Unit respectability, they were committed to staging quality productions featuring talented casts and crews and distinctive works with innovative elements. And it was with these ideas in mind that they came up with the idea to launch an all-Black version of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The narrative was to be roughly the same as this classic work, but the setting was to be switched from Scotland to a mythical Caribbean island (presumably Haiti), one with a long tradition of voodoo, mirroring the witchcraft element present in the original work. This premise thus gave rise to the nickname often attributed to this production, Voodoo Macbeth.

Twenty-year-old directorial prodigy Orson Welles (Jewell Wilson Bridges) tackles the ambitious project of staging an all-Black cast version of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the new historical drama, “Voodoo Macbeth.”  Photo courtesy of Voodoo Macbeth.

The film chronicles the many diverse challenges that went into the creation of this auspicious piece of American theater history. Much of it centers on the play’s aspiring but inexperienced director, 20-year-old drama prodigy Orson Welles (Jewell William Bridges), who had established quite a name for himself through his radio theater work, quickly becoming one of Houseman’s favorite rising young talents. Welles was initially skeptical of accepting the offer, concerned that it would cut into his emerging (and lucrative) broadcast career, but he was coaxed into taking the job by his wife, Virginia (June Schreiner), who saw it as a tremendous opportunity. However, as Welles found out, the hard work of pulling off this project was just beginning.

Even though the Negro Unit was established to help provide opportunities for Black actors, few classically trained performers were available, even in New York, where the play was to be staged. This meant Welles had to get creative to fill out his cast. He began his search by looking for individuals who were accustomed to performing in front of various types of audiences, such as nightclub singers and boxers, a plan that proved remarkably successful.

But, even with success in finding his share of suitable performers, Welles still had to deal with cast issues, such as the rapid and unexpected departure of the actor who had been selected for the title role, Juano Hernandez (Ephraim López), who left the production to take a radio drama job. Then there was the unreliability of the director’s substitute protagonist, Jack Carter (Gary McDonald), an alcoholic and petty criminal, who would often vanish during rehearsals. Welles also had to find a replacement to play the pivotal role of Lady Macbeth, a part that was supposed to be portrayed by McClendon but that she had to forego due to serious illness. The role was recast with Edna Thomas (Ashli Haynes), an under-confident actress who was unsure she could convincingly play the part. As a single mother, Thomas also had concerns about raising her young daughter, Clarisse (Kelsey Yates, Skyler Yates), while devoting herself full time to a commitment as demanding as this.

Esteemed actress Rose McClendon (Inger Tudor), head of the Depression Era Federal Theatre Project’s Negro Theatre Unit, oversees the production of an all-Black cast version of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the new historical drama, “Voodoo Macbeth.” Photo courtesy of Voodoo Macbeth.

Not all of the problems Welles faced were of a theatrical nature, either. He and Houseman came under pressure from Texas Congressman Martin Dies Jr. (Hunter Bodine), who railed against the government spending precious monetary resources on a project that he saw as “Communist propaganda.” It also didn’t help that the play was an undertaking that involved minorities, a prejudicial attitude that was clumsily veiled but nevertheless all too obvious. The potential withdrawal of federal funding thus constantly hung over the production, leaving Welles and Houseman wondering if the rug was going to be unceremoniously pulled out from under them. Some residents of New York’s Harlem neighborhood took issue with the play, too, contending that Welles made his cast members look like insultingly comical versions of Shakespeare’s characters, a claim that led to public protests.

The strain of these issues, coupled with his lack of theatrical production experience, weighed heavily on Welles. He often sought refuge in the false comfort of a bottle, a problem that grew progressively worse over time. That, in turn, led to marital problems with Virginia, adding more fuel to an already-blazing fire. And it didn’t help that his own ego kept getting in the way, the source of frequent feuds with McClendon, the cast and the crew. But, with the April 1936 opening at Harlem’s Lafayette Theatre looming, Welles would need to pull it together quickly if he hoped to avoid interminable embarrassment and disappointment. And, thanks to a no-nonsense sick bed conversation with McClendon in which she extolled the virtues of cooperation and setting aside one’s ego, Welles had the tools to turn things around – provided that he would allow that to happen.

Of course, few things in life would come together successfully were it not for cooperation, and the staging of this production illustrates that. So many elements must gel when tackling a project of this magnitude, but this venture was particularly challenging in light of the many unknowns and uncertainties associated with it. Black theatrical presentations of this scale were unheard of at the time, especially when it came to source material so different from the African-American experience as William Shakespeare. Add to that an untested director, shaky funding arrangements, casting difficulties and outside pressures, and you’ve got a mix that could have easily toppled the show before opening night.

Directorial prodigy Orson Welles (Jewell Wilson Bridges, second from right) and Federal Theatre Project Negro Theatre Unit director Rose McClendon (Inger Tudor, right) stand with the cast of their all-Black version of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the new historical drama, “Voodoo Macbeth.” Photo courtesy of Voodoo Macbeth.

Yet, for all these challenges, the show went on. All of the interested parties came together to make it work. And that’s because they believed it could work, thanks to the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains our reality manifests from the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. Moreover, when the power of the beliefs of numerous participants is aggregated, as here, it tends to be amplified, creating a potent force for use in an act of mutual co-creation. The collaborators on this production probably never heard of this school of thought, but they certainly made effective use of its principles.

Given the many hurdles that Welles and company faced, success truly seemed far from guaranteed. And, if one were to ask why these impediments materialized in the face of such an apparently sincere, heartfelt effort, understanding their presence may indeed be baffling. However, when we seek the fulfillment of an ambitious goal, sometimes it helps to have challenges in place that steel our resolve, to galvanize our beliefs and passions to ultimately triumph. In instances like this, if success came more easily, it may not be imbued with the kind of satisfaction and sense of achievement that would result otherwise.

Believing in ourselves and our collective efforts often benefits from the need to employ a little exertion, be it physical, mental or emotional in nature. And that hard work and determined discipline are apparent in the finished product, as evidenced by archive footage filmed during the original production, part of a 1937 WPA documentary titled “We Work Again” that’s been incorporated at the end of this picture. The project was not only a triumphant moment in American theatrical history, but it also solidified Welles’s reputation as a directorial icon. In addition, it launched the careers of numerous African-American performers who may not have had such opportunities were it not for this production. Quite a collective effort, to be sure.

That spirit of cooperation also played a significant role in the back story of this movie. As a project of the USC School of Cinematic Arts, “Voodoo Macbeth” was penned by a team of eight student screenwriters and shot by a directorial crew of 10 top graduate students. Collaborations of this nature are often viewed as potentially problematic, given possible clashes of vision and differing agendas that can lead to the proverbial “design by committee” issue. However, the seamless integration of the work of this team of contributors has resulted in a fine finished product. Admittedly, some of the writing is a bit over the top at times, and some of the acting is rather hammy (and not in the Shakespearean sequences, where one would most likely expect it), but the casting overall is quite solid, as are the period piece production values. It’s gratifying to see a student project turn out as polished as this one has.

The Lafayette Theatre set of an all-Black cast version of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth serves as the site of dramatics that extend beyond the play in “Voodoo Macbeth,” the new historical drama produced by students from the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Photo courtesy of Voodoo Macbeth.

Considering the quality of this release and the highly favorable critical reception it has received, as well as 15 competitive film festival awards, the picture genuinely deserves a wide audience and a shot at some form of general distribution. However, at the moment, finding this offering may take some effort, as it has been limited to the film festival circuit and select special screenings. There has been some talk that it may make it to one of the streaming platforms at some point, though nothing formal has materialized as yet. The impact of the COVID crisis, which has seriously interfered with movie distribution schedules, and the potential confusion posed by the 2021 theatrical release of the similarly titled “The Tragedy of Macbeth” have been offered as possible explanations behind this film’s limited release thus far. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen, as some pictures made as far back as 2019 are just now coming into circulation as the movie industry seeks to return to normal (or, perhaps more precisely, new normal) operating conditions. Keep your eye out for it.

Teamwork is one of those concepts that sometimes receives a bad rap, generally because of its overuse in such endeavors as trite, vapid corporate employee training programs. To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with working together, but there’s more to genuine cooperation than simply paying it empty lip service and spouting vacuous platitudes. It’ involves the shared beliefs and acts associated with sincerely striving to attain a mutually agreed-upon goal. Welles’s production of Macbeth embodies the spirit of such undertakings, one in which everyone pulled together for the good of the venture. We could learn a lot from this example, and, with its principles applied, there’s no telling what we can accomplish.

Copyright © 2021-2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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