Whitney White’s new rock ‘n’ roll musical “Macbeth in Stride” re-examines Lady M’s aspirations.
After directing the acclaimed production of James Baldwin’s domestic drama “The Amen Corner” at Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) and the healing experience of “What to Send Up When It Goes Down” at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, director, playwright, actor and singer Whitney White is returning to STC’s stages with her musical adaptation “Macbeth in Stride.” The production runs October 10 to 29 at STC’s Klein Theatre.
White, who is an associate director at STC, firmly believes “theatre, especially Shakespeare, is for everyone.”
While there is a reluctance in visiting the theater, she admits it’s easy to convince friends to attend concerts.
So, she’s deconstructed Shakespeare’s supernatural tragedy, adding metatheatrical commentary that analyzes the work through a contemporary Black feminist lens. She’s also turned it into a rock concert with original music.
Shakespeare’s OG Girlboss
White keeps most of Lady Macbeth’s scenes intact but often interrupts to ask contemporary questions about themes of love, power, marriage and desire. In Lady M, she finds a version of today’s ultimate girlboss: the woman who wants to have it all — marriage, family, success and the Scottish throne, a parable of leaning in (with dagger in hand).
White explains that “Macbeth in Stride” is a study about desire for power and love, and how sometimes those things are at odds for women today.
“How does a woman navigate motherhood, her own personal goals and her personal life?” White says. “Shakespeare made this trope of the power-hungry woman — the woman who is ambitious — and we still live with it today.”
Lady Macbeth’s name has become shorthand for any ambitious woman: Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Vice President Kamala Harris. Basically any woman who has achieved a level of power has been compared to the homicidal queen in negative media depictions.
“Does calling any powerful woman ‘Lady Macbeth’ bring her down?” White asks. “But, also, what’s the good side of this ambitious woman — her power? These are just delicious questions.”
The Rock Roots of “Macbeth in Stride”
Initially conceived as a solo performance piece during White’s third year at Brown University Trinity Rep in 2015, White continued to spend time with Shakespeare’s vexed villainess, revising and expanding the work into a rock concert take that features a cast of five, plus a onstage band. In fall 2021, “Macbeth in Stride” was a hit when it was onstage at A.R.T. in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“When I read ‘Macbeth,’ it sounds like rock ’n’ roll to me,” White says.
She doesn’t just mean the rhythms of iambic pentameter and the witchy rhymes, either. She finds Shakespeare’s ambitious duo is also a rock archetype.
For Lady Macbeth, she turned to icon Tina Turner’s boldness, her raw sexuality and relentless fight to claim her own name and fame separate from her husband. Her Lady Macbeth, performed by White (yes, she does it all) combines the Queen of Rock ’n’ Roll’s signature combination of rock, soul and blues.
Considering all the toxic masculinity of the play, she found inspiration for Macbeth’s voice in a different genre.
“There’s something about that landscape that sounds like industrial metal to me,” White says. “More Nine Inch Nails and Trent Reznor’s music.”
White explains the mashup between Black woman-led soul and white-man industrial sounds like the duality and psychology of their marriage.
“The surprise of ‘Macbeth’ is that this couple is in it together,” White says. “And that’s a very unique and contemporary thing.”
The witches drive the whole narrative. White called upon different times she received advice throughout her life — both good and bad — while constructing the witches’ “cacophony of voices” that advise the Macbeths as they make their fateful decisions. A trio of back-up singers portrayed as “women, queer folk, othered people,” acting alternately as sisters, enemies, friends, accomplices.
“That’s how Shakespeare wrote it; that’s how the movies show it,” White says.
The witches sing about the murderous couple — but it’s different in “Macbeth in Stride.” As the third witch says, “This time, it’s about her.”
Five Acts for Shakespeare’s Women
“Macbeth in Stride” has some strong similarities to recent feminist revisions that tell old tales through modern music. The West End hit “& Juliet” (2019) envisions a version where Shakespeare’s teen does not die, but instead discovers herself while singing Britney Spears and Katy Perry songs.
The touring musical “SIX” (2017) features Henry VIII’s tragic wives. Turning away from a fierce singing competition, the women compose their own happier endings and form a powerhouse pop group together.
Of this particular cultural moment surrounding these musicals, White says, “We’re all asking, ‘How can this old story speak to the now?’ It feels like a moment where artists have permission to look into the past and use what’s useful. I love that.”
“Macbeth in Stride” is just the first of a five-part series commissioned by A.R.T. There are four more works to be announced about Shakespearean heroines that White will be writing and directing over the next several years.
“There are certain women in Shakespeare’s canon that are particularly powerful to me,” White says. “I want to explore: What are the effects of their narratives on us today?”
“Macbeth in Stride” plays at Shakespeare Theatre Company from October 10-29. To learn more or to purchase tickets, visit shakespearetheatre.org or follow them on Instagram
@shakespeareindc. To see what Whitney White is up to next, visit whitney-white.com.
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