“Greek tragedy meets Harlem ball scene. Fantastic,” RuPaul Tweeted succinctly after seeing “And She Would Stand Like This.” The Harlem-based Movement theater company’s adaptation of Euripides’ “The Trojan Women,” which has opened at A.R.T./NY, is inspired by “Paris is Burning,” the 1990 film documentary by Jennie Livingston that chronicled the elaborate culture of drag balls by LGBTQ+ people of color in the 1980s.
And so the show begins with the fierce members of the House of Hecuba bedecked in fabulous attire posing down a runway one by one to pulsating house music, flashing disco lights, and deafening whoops and applause from the audience.
After that prologue, the runway becomes a hospital waiting room and the dancers, characters in an updated tragedy. In Euripides’ play, the Greeks have conquered Troy, killed the men, and imprisoned the Trojan women, who await further atrocities. In playwright Harrison David Rivers’ adaptation, the Greek killers have been replaced by an unnamed disease.
In Euripides’ play, Talthybius is a herald informing the dethroned Queen Hecuba what the Greeks will do to her and her children – death or enslavement. In Rivers’ adaptation, Talthybius (Reggie D. White) is a doctor delivering unwanted diagnoses.
The Greek chorus are a group of LGBTQ+ people of color whom Hecuba (Julienne Brown), once queen of the ball, had taken under wing. They are given the names Baby, Miss Scott, and Grace. They tell stories of their childhood.
Each of the ten characters in “And She Would Stand Like This” correspond in more or less clever ways to the characters in “The Trojan Women,” some more of a stretch than others. Menelaus, King of Sparta, becomes Elena (Florencia Lozano), the hospital’s administrator – and a woman who knew Hecuba before she transitioned to a woman. In Euripides, Menalaus was the husband of Helen, the “face to launch a thousand ships.” Here, the high-heeled Elena is mother to Honesto (Michael-Anthony Souza) who has a second identity, unknown to his mother…as Helen.
In his adaptation, Rivers gives implicit respect to his characters — poor, queer New Yorkers of color – by placing them in a classic tragedy that for 2,500 years has been populated by gods and goddesses, kings and queens. Director David Mendizabal has assembled a cast that does justice to Rivers’ conceit; some of the performers are themselves trans, all are people of color. Stand-outs include the three members of the Greek chorus — Darby Davis, Tamara Williams and Cornelius Davidson — who werk it to Kia LeBeija’s vibrant choreography in the prologue and then tell Rivers’ stories with a simplicity that makes them all the more moving. The star of the show is Julienne “Mizz June” Brown, who persuasively carries the weight of Hecuba on her shoulders. It’s refreshing to see such characters, and such performers, on a New York stage.
The fusion of Ancient Greece with 1980s Harlem doesn’t always play well. It takes some adjustment to go from the high-energy prologue to the staid pace of the tragedy. And the mix of dictions can be jarring. One moment Hecuba proclaims: “I see the work of gods who pile tower-high the pride of those who were nothing, and dash present grandeur down.” Another moment, she says: “A bitch can’t catch a motherfucking break!”
There is too much of the high diction, which can sound like a bad translation, and at the same time too much shouting. The most striking moments are told quietly and plain. Baby (Cornelius Davidson) tells us he got his nickname from his mother, who would hold his head between her hands and say “Make sure you don’t lose this”; she would put her ears to his heart and say “Make sure you listen to it beat, because it’ll always tell you the truth.”; she would grab his penis in the tub and say “This ain’t no weapon. Your Daddy ain’t figured that out yet.”
And occasionally, the mix of the Ancient and modern, the Queens and queens, feels just right:
“Have you ever noticed how a word begins to lose all meaning when it is said over and over again?” all three members of the chorus say in unison.
Grace: “A word like grief.”
Miss Scott: “Grief.”
What a funny sounding word.”
And She Would Stand Like This
Written by Harrison David Rivers
Directed by David Mendizabal
Choreographed by Kia LaBeija
Set Designer: Paul Tate DePoo III
Lighting Designer: Brian Tovar
Costume Designer: Anitra Michelle
Sound Designer: Sinan Refik Zafar
DJ/Prologue Composer: Byrell the Great
Cast: Julienne “Mizz June” Brown as Hecuba, Cornelius Davidson as Baby, Cherrye J. Davis as Andromache, Darby Davis as Miss Scott, Florencia Lozano as Elena, Ashton Muñiz as Cassandra, Michael-Anthony Souza as Honesto/Helen, Dasan Turner as Astyanax, Reggie D. White as Talythybius, and Tamara Williams as Grace.
Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $20-$25. “A minimum of 15 tickets per performance will be pay-what-you-can.”
“And She Would Stand Like This” is on stage through August 6th, 2017