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Diversity & Inclusion: The Shakespeare Project’s Civil Rights-Era Romeo and Juliet

High school students and communities near campus were able to experience a professional production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set in Anniston in the 1960s. The Shakespeare Project’s annual performances just ended, with a community show in Jacksonville on August. 27 concluding the run.

The Shakespeare Project performed their rendition of Romeo and Juliet to about 1,800 students at seven high schools in the area, along with several community performances. The famous tale of star-crossed lovers has been abridged, with a run time of 60 to 90 minutes, and simplified to a “trunk tour,” without stage lighting and with only a few actors playing multiple parts. This format not only allows the production to travel to multiple venues with ease, but is similar to how The Lord Chamberlain’s Men originally staged the plays of William Shakespeare. 

Romeo and Juliet” is required reading for high schoolers in Alabama, so the intent of these performances is to enhance existing studies and make elevated art easy to comprehend,” said the show’s executive director, Emily Duncan.

The plot and setting of the classic play were also reworked. The parents of today’s high school and college students likely remember the 1996 blockbuster “Romeo + Juliet,” featuring a young Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in a modernized retelling directed by Baz Luhrmann. Along the same vein, this new production – adapted by New York theater professional Karl Hawkins and retired JSU English Professor Carmine DiBiase – is set in 1960s Anniston, Ala., in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, and features an interracial Romeo and Juliet fighting to be together in the face of prejudice and suppression. 

Hawkins said, “Merging the history of the American South with Shakespeare’s beautiful language will help us see this story that we know and love in a fresh, new way.”

Students had positive reactions to this production. At the talk-back after the Pell City Community performance, one student commented, “I read Romeo and  Juliet in 9th grade, but I didn’t understand it until now. I’m in 11th grade.” 

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