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Premonitory piece, inspired by Meghan Markle, puts two black duchesses face to face

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When Sydney Charles and Celeste Cooper watched Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, they reacted the same to many other viewers: They were struck by Markle’s honesty regarding his problems with mental health and his allegations of racism within the British Royal Family.

But for Charles and Cooper, watching the interview was also strange: just a few months ago, the couple had performed in a play “Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!” which was written by Vivian JO Barnes and is broadcast online by the Steppenwolf Theater Company of Chicago which almost simulated the sit-down. Charles and Cooper, both black, play a current and future Duchess who meet for the first time to discuss protocol of joining the royal family. They also confront the realities of racism and sexism within the institution.

After seeing a similar conversation unfold between Winfrey and Markle, the play they performed and wrote by Barnes in 2018 was prophetic, the cast said.

“It was wild,” Charles said. “I thought, ‘What? This is witchcraft! “”

Celeste Cooper as “The Future Duchess” in Steppenwolf’s virtual production “Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!” Lowell Thomas

In the play that debuted online just three days after the interview, Charles, who plays the Duchess, sits down with Cooper, the future Duchess, as their characters are identified, apparently to go over “the rules. “which will accompany it. new public role: how and when to sit, when to speak, what to say and, possibly, how to cope with the pressures of royal life.

The incoming Duchess finds the expectations maddening from the start and mistakenly assumes that her predecessor will provide a sense of brotherhood and a place of refuge where the two can abandon their guards. But the Duchess largely accepts the restrictions that bind her, until the future Duchess, with her exhortations to ‘burn’, inspires the Duchess to undertake a dramatic and subversive act of resistance.

Barnes, the playwright, heard echoes of this spirit of resistance in the way Markle spoke out against the monarchy.

“The play starts out very exactly as you think it’s going to play out, in terms of ‘we’re doing princess lessons’, and then it takes a tough right pretty quickly,” she said. “There are similarities, or metaphorical resonances, between our world and the exacerbated world of the play.”

The resonances, Barnes said, emerge from the racist and sexist discrimination and stereotypes that black women face, especially within predominantly white institutions like the British Monarchy, which they should help defend while staying out of the picture. by sight, she said. In her conversation with Winfrey, Markle pulled back the curtain on this reality, explaining how she was barely allowed to leave Kensington Palace for months after being accused of being overexposed in the media.

Sydney Charles as “The Duchess” in Steppenwolf’s virtual production “Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!”Lowell Thomas

“By being so visible, as a person … you actually become invisible, in a lot of ways, because people don’t take into account who you are, they only see you for the symbolism that you represent,” Barnes says of Markle.

Charles and Cooper drew on their own experiences in “Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!” make the struggles they portray in the play feel personal.

“It talks about what I’ve heard from Meghan Markle, as well as my experiences as a black woman in America, being in white spaces and maybe having to shrink myself,” Cooper said.

Charles compared her role as Duchess to her experience working in American companies, which she said she left in 2016 because of the discrimination she and other black women faced.

“You’re expected to represent the entire conglomerate of black women, and that involves speaking up when you’re supposed to, being sassy when you’re supposed to, but not too sassy, ​​or to be docile but also to be strong, ”she said. . “I feel like all black women around the world, especially Meghan Markle and the Duchess in this room, they are meant and obligated to respect the tradition that also oppresses them and the weight of that is grueling. It is not natural for every human, every soul. , to wear that. “

Barnes wrote “Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!” almost three years ago, as a first year master of fine arts student at the University of California, San Diego, where she is now a third year student. She was first inspired by photos of Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, posing outside St. Mary’s Hospital in London in heels and with freshly dried hair just hours after giving birth to each of her three children .

“I thought to myself, ‘What is this in the world, and why is this happening? “, She says.

When Harry and Meghan married and became the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, their marriage prompted Barnes to think about how she could write a play that would put a new twist on the royal family without pitting the two women against one another. one to another.

She wondered what would happen if the play featured “a Meghan-esque person and a new black person entering the institution” after Markle “has been there for a while?”

Barnes first staged the play in person in 2019, at a festival at UC San Diego, which led to the collaboration with Steppenwolf, she said. The pandemic forced the Chicago stage play to go virtual, forcing Cooper and Charles to independently record their performances for a few days late last year in their apartments.

Each actor received a camera and technical equipment by post. Each took turns taking turns via Zoom to support the other as she officially played hers for the camera.

For Barnes, the isolated conditions in which the team recorded the play highlighted how the relationship between the characters evolves from start to finish, from icy to interdependent.

“The play is specifically set in this closed room, where they cannot be seen, and they are able to see each other,” she said.

And after watching Markle’s interview with Winfrey last month, Charles and Cooper saw the Duchess of Sussex and their own characters in a whole new light.

“It made me look at the show differently. Meghan is kind of a combination of the two characters,” Cooper said. “With the interview, there’s a part of her that ‘burned that’ off.”

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