The program for “Merry Wives,” the free Shakespeare production in the Park at the Delacorte Theatre, declares it’s “a Celebration of Black Joy and Vitality” and those words are absolutely true! Shakespeare’s classic comedy has been given a new lease of hilarity with an adaptation by Jocelyn Bioh and marvelous direction by Saheem Ali. This splendid work brings Shakespeare into the 21st century and sets the story in Harlem among African families. The characters are stupendously portrayed by one of the most talented All-Black cast you will have the pleasure of seeing. Every one of these actors holds your attention and makes you beg for more.
The “Merry Wives” tells the story of Falstaff, a man who decides he will charm two married women who have rich husbands and get them to take care of him. He decides to write each a letter to profess his affections. He doesn’t count on the fact that these women are friends, and each shares his letter with the other. By the way, the letters happen to say the exact same thing. The two women, Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page, are furious that this man, who is fat and of no account, could think he could have either one of them. They plot together to take him down.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Ford’s husband, a very jealous man, and Mr. Page, a trusting man, learn from one of Falstaff’s companions that he is plotting to go after their wives. The other big part of the story is that Mr. Page’s daughter Anne is to be married. Mr. Page wants her to marry a young man named Slender and promises his Uncle Shallow that his nephew can marry his daughter. Meanwhile Mrs. Page is trying to wed her daughter to the local physician, Doctor Caius, and a young woman named Fenton is also in love with Anne.
Now, does this all sound like a lot? Well, there’s more: a matchmaker, Mama Quickly, is asked by everyone to get involved in having Anne wed the person they wish for her. The local pastor, Pastor Evans, has his preference for a spouse for Anne as well.
The hilarity never ceases for a moment, especially when it comes to Falstaff wooing the ladies. He does it flaunting his belly, he sings love songs to them in his best Barry White voice and while he thinks he’s melting the ladies’ hearts, he is sadly and amusingly mistaken. What these women do to Falstaff is absolutely bend-over laughing funny.
Everyone on that stage is superb in their roles. Jacob Ming-Trent is tremendous as Falstaff. Comedic is not enough to describe his brilliant, hilarious portrayal of this character. The Merry Wives—Susan Kelechi Watson as Madam Nkechi Ford and Pascale Armand as Madam Ekua Page—are simply delightful. They are so good at being bad! Gbenga Akinnagbe plays Mister Nduka Ford and is unforgettable as the jealous, worried, stressed-out husband. Kyle Scatliffe is perfect as Mister Kwame Page, a patient, caring husband, who believes in his wife’s faithfulness. Joshua Echebiri is versatile as he plays Slender/Pistol. Abena is delightful and charming as the lovely Anne. MaYaa Boateng is wonderful as Fenton/Simple. Phillip James Brannon is fantastic as Pastor Evans. Angela Grovey is a lady of many talents and purposes as Mama Quickly. David Ryan Smith is so funny as Doctor Caius. Julian Rozzell Jr. is captivating as Shallow. The ensemble members complement this fabulous cast of characters and include Brandon E. Burton; Branden Lindsay; Ebony Marshall-Oliver; Jarvis D. Matthews; and Jennifer Mogbock.
Now, of course, when you’re depicting a story with African families you need a drummer, and this production has an incredible one in Farai Malianga, original drum composer. This production has some of the most imaginative African dance you’ve seen in a long time and the choreography is the impressive work of Darrell Grand Moultrie. The marvelous, elegant African attire is the work of Dede Ayite, the costume designer.
Sitting at the Delacorte Theatre was amazing. It was just so incredible to be back in theater again and under the night sky. “Merry Wives” will play through Sept. 18, 2021, and believe me, if you go, you will be very Merry indeed!
To get more information and for tickets, visit www.publictheatre.org.