Contemporary approaches to a 400 year-old text can reveal new resonances — and deep tensions. May Liang, assistant dramaturg and social impact consultant for last season’s As You Like It, reflects on the questions that surfaced in the rehearsal room as actors explored relationships to place and character within the design of the play.
“Are we gentrifiers?”
A question that one may hear being asked at a new SF Mission coffee shop or on the sidewalks around Lake Merritt. It can be spoken in a self-conscious way – an uncomfortable thought in question of where one should belong. Or, for those who question the concept, it can be heard as an incredulous exasperation.
This question also came up in the rehearsal room for Cal Shake’s 2017 As You Like It, directed by Desdemona Chiang. As the lushness of the Court transforms into the skeletal warehouse-like space of the play’s Arden, we see the exiled Duke Senior and his followers huddled in the cold and barren landscape.
But what comes out of Duke Senior is not how forlorn he is for having lost his place. He extols the virtues of their newfound space:
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Sweet are the uses of adversity…
And this our life exempt from public haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones and good in everything.
A translation of this into our modern context can be problematic: it reflects a way of thinking that can be equated to what newcomers may have said about the Mission District in San Francisco just a few years ago, when it was “discovered.” And many of us have heard and seen the results of the changes that followed.
But Duke Senior goes on:
Come, shall we go and kill us venison?
And yet it irks me the poor dappled fools,
Being native burghers of this desert city,
Should in their own confines with arrowheads
Have their round haunches gored.
Let’s first acknowledge the historical problem of comparing communities of people (of color) to animals – Shakespeare’s language can be tricky when making leaps in comparing our modern society using his words. But Duke Senior seems to have an inkling that something is not right in their position within their “newly discovered” space. And he’s not the only one – as reported by one of Duke Senior’s followers:
The melancholy Jaques grieves at that,
And, in that kind, swears you do more usurp
Than doth your brother that hath banish’d you….
Swearing that we
Are mere usurpers, tyrants and what’s worse,
To fright the animals and to kill them up
In their assign’d and native dwelling-place.
And so the question came up – “are we gentrifiers?”
Shakespeare could not have predicted that his words could so pointedly describe a notion that is very present in the forefront of our community consciousness with our current housing crisis and widening wealth gap. But it’s impossible to miss it in Jaques’ lament.
As the play’s Arden continues to transform throughout the play, that question begins to unravel – it becomes complicated with other questions that arise:
Where can exiles belong? How does class influence exile? How does a space create confinement vs. freedom of expression and exploration? Who can own a space? Who can welcome others into it? Is this even possible?
In our Arden, the exiles discover their hidden selves, explore other options that were not permitted breath by the confined codes of the Court. They could proudly present themselves as however they like, from a joker turned lover to a lead character exploring and claiming their true gender identity.
The natives of Arden are also not victims – they are more than capable in their way of life and only through their welcoming spirit can the new exiles start to understand themselves and thrive together.
So, are they gentrifiers? I can’t say that this question was answered within the rehearsal process or even within our version of the play. But the context in which we put the exiles and natives of Arden shed some light on how we can critically think about our modern understanding in regards to place and space.
May Liang is an emerging director/theater artist establishing a career in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a Directing Mentee/Resident Artist at Crowded Fire Theater and has worked with TheatreFIRST, PlayGround Center for New Plays (Directing Fellow 2017), Bay Area Playwrights Foundation, Ferocious Lotus Theater Company (Literary Manager), Bindlestiff Studios, Ubuntu Theater Project, Berkeley Repertory Theater’s Ground Floor Lab, and Impact Theater. She was a participant in the Lincoln Center Theater Director’s Lab 2017 and you can see her work next at the Bay Area Children’s Theater.