Staying True to Shakespeare With an All-Black Comedy Set in Atlanta

The year is 2020 and the setting is Atlanta, but this production of “Much Ado About Nothing” is certainly still Shakespeare: Beatrice steps onto the balcony of her Uncle Leonato’s mansion, where Stacey Abrams’ presidential campaign banners hang. The first song she sings: Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” Then, she transitions into “America the Beautiful.” Yet, not much later, when Benedick and Beatrice start talking, notes of Shakespeare’s humor pepper their bickering.

This season of Shakespeare in the Park — an annual production presented by the New York-based arts organization Public Theater — started May 21 with an adaption of the comedy by the Tony Award-winning director Kenny Leon. Performed at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, “Much Ado About Nothing” is re-imagined with an all-black cast, including Danielle Brooks (“Orange Is the New Black”) as Beatrice, Margaret Odette as Hero, Chuck Cooper as Leonato and Grantham Coleman as Benedick.

“A really great Shakespeare production connects with the cultural moment,” said James Shapiro, the Public Theater’s Shakespeare scholar in residence and a professor at Columbia University, who worked with Mr. Leon on the adaption. “You have to live in that moment, you have to feel that moment and you have to be a part of that moment.”

Even with contemporary touches like characters’ using cellphones and references to Cardi B and Ms. Abrams — an ascendant figure in Democratic Party politics after her unsuccessful run for governor of Georgia — the production stays true to Shakespeare’s wit and humor. And the plot from Shakespeare’s four-centuriesy-old text remains the same, but tweaked to resonate with contemporary audiences.

Mr. Leon’s take on “Much Ado About Nothing” demonstrates Shakespeare’s durability and relevance now, in a moment rife with both absurdity and heightened tensions. Mr. Leon’s production illustrates the life experiences of African-Americans in modern-day Atlanta. He makes that clear at the outset, with Ms. Brooks’s passionate performance of “What’s Going On,” a powerful song that addresses the wrath of war and racial tensions in the 1970s.

The play begins with men and women returning from war. This version, like the original, does not explicitly say who the soldiers are fighting or where, but there are allusions to a quest for love and peace throughout the story.

“In a way, black culture is more connected to that 1598 culture than contemporary white culture, for the most part, is,” Mr. Shapiro said. “And that was the first really illuminating experience of working with the company.”

Mr. Shapiro’s role was to serve as Mr. Leon’s scholarly reference, helping him understand the language, culture and history — anything related to Shakespeare and the time he wrote the original text.

“This man eats and sleeps and drinks Shakespeare,” Mr. Leon said in an interview at the theater before a recent performance. “He encouraged me to place it in Atlanta and not be afraid of that. He encouraged me to not be afraid of having an all African-American cast, and we have a brotherhood, a partnership, that has really been wonderful for me.”

Mr. Leon spent several weekends flying to New York and heading straight to Mr. Shapiro’s apartment, where they spent hours brainstorming.

Mr. Shapiro, who has taught English and comparative literature at Columbia since 1985, has a passion for Shakespeare that goes back decades. He has seen countless Shakespeare performances. “By the time I was in my mid-20s,” he said, “I had seen several hundred.”

The play also draws upon Mr. Leon’s deep knowledge of Atlanta: He graduated from Clark Atlanta University and founded Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theater Company, which is based in Atlanta, in 2002. On the Delacorte stage, Atlanta’s influence is apparent in the peach trees and scene transitions with dancing and a track with heavy bass.

“It’s an extraordinary opportunity for me to watch one of the great directors of our times take on a 400-year-old play and bring it alive,” Mr. Shapiro said of Mr. Leon. “These plays are just words on a page until actors and a director try to make them live, and not every director does so well.”

The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” which is free, runs through June 23.

Already, Mr. Shapiro is imagining partnering with Mr. Leon on another Shakespeare adaptation. “I’m going to try to talk him into doing ‘Macbeth,’” Professor Shapiro said. “But he doesn’t know that yet. I think that he would do such a brilliant ‘Macbeth.’”