A few years ago, Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum and the Princeton University Art Museum each put on an exhibit titled, “Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe.” The exhibits featured art that has, of course, been around for centuries, but because the public was so conditioned to see and think of Blacks only in certain geographical and historical contexts, their presence in these works was overlooked. The exhibits started a conversation. Historians and art curators began discovering and highlighting works that situated Blacks not only in Africa and the Americas but also suggested a presence in many parts of Europe over many historical eras, including those preceding the Renaissance. Still, television and film has been slow to develop period dramas that depict this reality. With Shonda Rhimes’ new series “Still Star Crossed,” that is starting to change.
Based on the famous play by Shakespeare, Rhimes’ series premiered on ABC May 29. It is a story of complex love affairs and fraught power relationships among the young denizens of the Italian city of Verona in the aftermath of the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, the main characters in the play of the same name. “Romeo and Juliet” is widely recognized as being set during the Renaissance or perhaps a bit earlier. Rhimes has chosen to pull from a traditionally ignored aspect of history by using people of color as stars in the drama. African-American Sterling Sulieman (“Pretty Little Liars,” “Vampire Diaries”) plays the beleaguered Prince Escalus of Verona, charged with restoring peace to a city in turmoil that threatens to erupt in war. Most of the conflict is between the factions allied with houses of Montague and Capulet. Rosaline Capulet is a minor character in the actual play but is the main character in “Still Star Crossed.”
Rosaline is played by Afro-British actress Lashana Lynch (“Fast Girls,” “Brotherhood”).
Rosaline, Lynch said, “has been in love with the prince since her teens.”
She continued, “They’ve been in love with each other, I should say, and he rules all of Verona. So, in the pilot, when you see the story of Romeo and Juliet unfold, you will see the prince having to make a decision how to bring the Capulets and the Montagues together to prevent a war from breaking out.”
Well, the prince comes up with a particularly agonizing way of bringing peace to Verona. He sacrifices both himself and the woman he loves. Lynch, who grew up in West London near Notting Hill, explained, “The way he does that is by betrothing Rosaline and Benvolio against her will. So that drives a wedge between everything. She thought that he loved her and that they’d kind of live together happily ever after, but he’s the prince and she’s a Capulet, which in that world doesn’t go
together hand in hand.”
Rosaline by the way, takes to Benvolio—who is Romeo’s cousin and thus a Montague—the way Melania takes to Donald. In addition to adjusting to life with a man for whom she possesses a palpable hatred, Rosaline worries about her younger sister, Livia, who is something of an innocent. With Rosaline gone, Livia is left in the Capulet house at the mercy of the unkind Lady Capulet. Rosaline and Livia went to live in the Capulet house as orphaned little girls. Lynch revealed, “Lady Capulet really doesn’t like them at all. They have a lot of friction, which you will see why throughout the series.”
Lynch has been acting and studying acting as an art form since she was a little girl. “I started really young in elementary school.” She said. “I got a couple of parts in BBC programs for kids. And then I took my A levels all in drama. Then I took a year out, and then I went to drama school for three years. That’s where I got my classical training. That’s where I got my film training. That’s why I understood just how much it took for me to do this as a career and not as a hobby.”
Lynch graduated from the Arts Educational School of Acting in Chiswick in West London. Its current president is venerable theater producer Andrew Lloyd Webber. It also boasts “Game of Thrones” Finn Jones as one of its alumni.
Performing Shakespeare professionally isn’t new to Lynch. “A few years ago, I worked at the National Theater doing Romeo and Juliet,” she said. “I played Tybalt and it was a Black and Asian cast. So, because of that experience a few years ago the idea of doing Shakespeare as a Black woman wasn’t surprising. In terms of it being a period drama, that’s a whole other thing. I have not been cast in a period drama at home. I didn’t expect the states to jump ahead and create a period drama for themselves, especially Shakespeare. It was previously unheard of, but now that this has happened or is happening, it is changing the way people think in terms of casting a classical piece of television or film. And once you get past that hurdle, then I think people
will start to expect it more.”