This weekend, Houston’s Black Theater Week showcased a daring revamp of a Shakespearean classic. Actress and poet Joy Yvonne Jones brought an age-old story to life with her one-woman show at the Deluxe Theater on Sept. 21 and 24. The show, written and produced by Jones, is an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s epic tragedy Antony and Cleopatra.
The original play focuses on the star-crossed love affair between Roman ruler Mark Antony and Egyptian queen Cleopatra. Antony was part of a triumvirate (a government ruled by three men); he ruled the Roman Empire with Octavian (aka Octavius Caesar) and statesman Marcus Lepidus after the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. Cleopatra, who ruled Egypt for two decades, became involved with Antony (and had twins with him in 40 B.C.) But after the death of his wife, Fulvia — and facing the prospect of an armed rebellion — he returns to Rome. Later, he and Octavian decide to head off the rebellion by forming a military alliance; Antony marries Octavian’s sister Octavia. Upon learning of the marriage, Cleopatra flies into a jealous rage. But Antony soon returns to Egypt and forms an alliance with the queen — with tragic consequences.
Jones’ re-imagining of the play centers the queen squarely, instead of the wars and machinations of the Roman triumvirate. It portrays Cleopatra as a multifaceted character: a regal queen, a cunning strategist, a devoted partner and mother. It takes place inside the Deluxe Theater, which opened in 1941 on Lyons Avenue, in the heart of Houston’s Fifth Ward. And it stars Jones, a Black actress, in the title role — something that was important to Jones herself. “I wanted to make sure that we connected Cleopatra to a Black woman,” she said, explaining her use of African and Egyptian costumes and set pieces. “I wanted it all to be uniquely Black.”
It was unique in many ways. Joy Jones began her Sept. 21 performance by doing something rarely seen in theater: she addressed the audience directly, handing them lines on printed paper. (Members of the audience would play messengers, who deliver important updates to the queen.) She ordered them to turn off their cell phones during the play: “I can see every single one of you. If your cell phone goes off in the middle of the show, I will call you out,” she warned.) And she encouraged them to take part in a Q&A after the show, inviting questions, comments and even constructive criticisms. But keep it constructive, she asked them: “I’m an artist, and I’m sensitive about my s—t.”
Indeed. Jones, a graduate of Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (2010) is a founding member of the San Diego Black Artist collective and previously played Cleopatra in a production of Antony and Cleopatra for New Artist Collective. But her production felt distinctly different. She opened the show with an interpretive dance that seemed to evoke both ballet and burlesque. She intercut portions of stage dialogue with brief film clips projected on a screen behind the stage. And perhaps most notably, she combined Shakespeare’s words with her own prose.
“The heart of this production lies in combining Shakespeare’s original text with my original poetry, adding spice and relevance to Cleopatra’s story. This adaptation will also include film and projection art to assist in bringing life to the highs and lows of Cleopatra in a modern way. As a Black woman, I am familiar with being villainized for ambition, sexualized because of my body, and manipulated for the success of others. I aim to infuse this adaptation with a deep understanding of the challenges faced by Black women in society. Through this production,” Jones wrote on her website, “we will break barriers and challenge stereotypes, allowing Cleopatra to express herself fully, flaws and all, without shame.”
“No one was going to erase me — especially not a man,” Cleopatra proclaims onstage. “Never mistake me for a damsel. I fought the way I move best and with the tools however sharpest in my hands. What good is beauty if you don’t know how to leverage it? What good is intelligence if you are afraid to wield it?” Cleopatra Jones does both — unapologetically. “I lived by my rules and I die by my will,” she declares. “Say what you feel about me, but you will never forget me.”