- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 1, 2000

The Bard is back.
William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" returns with a vengeance. This time the classic love story takes on a new twist and considers what might have happened in an encounter between medieval Africa and Europe as symbolized by two feuding royal families and two star-crossed teen-age lovers.
The lovers meet during a period of bustling trade between the Italians and the Songhai on the rich African continent, circa 1500. The two are forced to deal with social norms, contentious royal families, religious incompatibilities and the politics of the day.
The play is co-produced by Howard University and the Catholic University of America.
Thespians from Howard University in Northwest portray Juliet's family the Capulets, who are natives of West Africa. Romeo's Italian clan, the Montagues, are portrayed by Catholic University actors.
"Up front, we wanted to be true to Shakespeare," says director Mark Jolin, Howard University Theater arts professor. Mr. Jolin has taken literary license and changed some of the original dialogue to reflect the African essence.
Although it's an interracial cast, it is not black and white; there's a lot bubbling under the surface.
"We focus on sociological differences. For example, the fact that the country is governed by an African prince and with that comes the stature of royalty. The Europeans come in, see that and don't respect it. There's an internal conflict. The immediate discord is already there," Mr. Jolin says.
Another cultural difference, he points out, involves Romeo's outward affection towards Juliet.
"The Europeans are obviously used to putting their arms around women, but in this Moslem society, it's unheard of. When Romeo first touches Juliet, she jumps back. Although she's attracted to him, she is not used to being kissed. There are lots of little nuances throughout the play," he says.
Reggie Ray, costume designer and Howard University instructor, and set designer Thomas Donahue, an associate professor in Catholic's drama department, combined to create the visual texture found in Mali's city of Timbuktu, with its lush fabrics, vibrant colors and dramatic backdrops.
"The look will add to the conflict of the story line. The lines and silhouettes will contrast the two different cultures," Mr. Ray, 45, says.
"The Italians have been living in Africa for a while but have not adapted 100 percent [to the climate] and that's why you will see a hybrid more so in the Italian costumes as opposed to the natives," Mr. Ray says.
Look for Romeo to don his doublet, a hip-length jacket with its puffed upper sleeves and tights, in keeping with the period dress for men.
His father, Lord Montague (portrayed by Michael Paolantonio ), will wear a traditional tunic and billowy, loose-fitting pants. Juliet will be adorned in traditional African clothing from head to toe she's exchanged her Venetian cap for an elaborate African headdress.
Throughout the 2 1/2-hour production, audiences will hear the beat of djembe drums and the kora , a 21-string African harp, instead of the European lute and viol, popular medieval instruments.
Lithe dancers appear as spiritual ancestors whenever the doomed lovers meet a way to acknowledge the solemn and strong connection between the seen and the unseen in African tradition.
In Act One, Juliet's father, Lord Capulet (portrayed by Glenn Gordon), throws a festive gathering for friends and family. There's dancing and merriment to be had, but Mr. Jolin says the traditional dances of the Renaissance have been replaced with traditional African dances.
"The cast just loves it … It's new and it's different," he says with a smile. "The issue is morals against mortals… . The power of love regardless of the package transcends all sociological barriers."
Onira Satterwhite, who portrays the independent-thinking, 14-year-old Juliet, says the new setting adds dimension to her character.
"It makes the love Romeo and Juliet share a lot more passionate because she is attracted to someone who is foreign. Of course, when you act, you bring yourself to the role. So, I am bringing my own culture to the part," Ms. Satterwhite, 19, says.
For Nicholas Lowe, 21, who portrays the impetuous 17-year-old Romeo, the timing of the play couldn't be better.
"At the age I am right now, well, it's perfect for Romeo. It's a part you can only play when you're young. This has been such a wonderful experience for me because it's [the character] so bipolar. For me it goes from pseudo depression to ecstasy back to pseudo depression," Mr. Lowe says.
"It's the kind of role actors both dream about and have nightmares about because of the range of emotions the part calls for," he says.
The chance to work with actors from Catholic University has been both a learning experience and a way to develop new friendships, Ms. Satterwhite says.
Mr. Lowe agrees.
"It's been really amazing, just getting out of the small sphere in which we all live. We have a very homogenous student body at Catholic University. There isn't a lot of diversity here. Sometimes, I think that keeps us from getting a good world view about different cultures and understanding how other people live," Mr. Lowe says.
"Working with Howard University has been an eye-opener on both our similarities and our differences. Down deep, we're all pretty much the same but at the same time we can learn from one another's cultural differences," the third year drama major says.
That's exactly the point Gitta Honegger , the head of Catholic's Drama Department, wants to impress upon students.
"For starters, it's set in the Songhai Empire and students get a multicultural view of Europe and Africa and there's still that connection to Shakespeare," Ms. Honegger says.
"With Howard's majority black student body … this is a good opportunity to share in the theater work that's reflective of our society," she says.

WHAT: "Romeo and Juliet," presented by The Catholic University of America and Howard University

WHERE: Catholic University's Hartke Theatre , 620 Michigan Avenue NE and Howard University's Ira Aldridge Theater, on Howard's main campus in Northwest

WHEN: Tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. through Sat., Nov. 4 at Hartke Theatre. At Ira Aldridge, 7:30 p.m., Thurs., Nov. 9 through Sat., Nov. 11, and at 2:30 p.m. Sun., Nov. 12

COST: $15 at Catholic University and $12.50 at Howard. Discounts and group rates are available. Call Hartke's box office at 202/319-4000 or Ira Aldridge Theater at 202/806-7700.

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