Duchess!

Sydney Charles and Steppenwolf ensemble member Celeste M. Cooper in "Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!" by Vivian J.O. Barnes, directed by Weyni Mengesha, presented as part of the Steppenwolf NOW virtual stage. 

The timing couldn't have been better for the release of “Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!” as part of the Steppenwolf NOW Virtual Stage if the theater had planned it. Coming just a few days after Oprah Winfrey's interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry on CBS, Vivian J.O. Barnes' 35-minute play addresses the same subjects: racism, self-abnegation and the other costs of being the “luckiest girl in the world” for a Black woman.

But this timing is accidental if uncanny. Although Barnes, a third-year MFA playwright at UC San Diego, has said the play was loosely inspired by Markle and the royal family, she wrote the initial draft in 2018. Steppenwolf's production was filmed in November and December 2020.

The playwright approaches the issues differently than Oprah's interview and expands the scope by making both of the characters Black. The setup is straightforward enough. The Duchess ( Sydney Charles), who has given birth just a week earlier, is meeting for the first time with the Soon-To-Be-Duchess (Celeste M. Cooper), who is about to marry into the family. She's been designated by the “firm” to instruct her younger counterpart on the fine points of protocol, etiquette and comportment required for her new role.

But we sense that something is off from the start, thanks to the performers and director Weyni Mengesha. The Duchess, with her long straightened hair, sophisticated style and pitch-perfect speech, uncomfortably practices her initial “nice to meet you” greeting before her guest arrives, then abruptly leaves for a few minutes. Casual, outspoken Soon-To-Be doesn't know quite what to do until her hostess' return, so she hungrily eats a couple of petals from the vase of flowers on the little table between two arm chairs. This doesn't make any sense, but later we learn that she's been starving herself to fit into her wedding dress.

The tone becomes increasingly surreal as the interview progresses. The Duchess admonishes Soon-To-Be not to cross her legs but to master the “Duchess slant” no matter how uncomfortable, and is aghast at seeing condoms in her guest's purse. Soon-To-Be reveals she's been pilloried in the press and has received a series of distressing internal palace memos, including one advising her to be “a little less cocoa, a lot more beige.” She laughs them off, ripping them to bits, but admits she has nightmares about her mouth turning into a hand that perpetually waves to crowds.

If Soon-To-Be expects understanding and support from The Duchess, that's not what she gets. Though prodded to join in tearing up the memos, The Duchess has been so completely co-opted by the royal mythology that she sees her public self as a “person who’s taking up the me-shaped hole I left behind.” A hollowed-out personality, she begins to unravel, not quite recalling giving birth, frequently leaving the room saying she's “leaking,” becoming unable to form words.

While a defiant Soon-To-Be threatens to burn the whole place down, The Duchess suffers — and invites — a disturbing fate that is a logical, if absurd, extension of what has gone before. It's also in the realm of science fiction, though Barnes’ denouement can be seen as a metaphor for reality in light of some of what Markle said in the interview.

Technically, “Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!” succeeds admirably in making actors who were filmed separately look like they're in the same room. Charles and Cooper, who both are first-rate, were each shipped remote-controlled cameras, curtains, laptops, lighting equipment, costumes, set pieces and dozens of props, and given hours of Zoom instruction on how to use them.

The seamless result is a room backed by black curtains with a small round table topped by a flower-filled vase and flanked by two arm chairs. Besides the actors and director, credit goes to creative director Joel Moorman, director of photography and video editor Lowell Thomas, artistic producer and casting director JC Clementz, production manager Claire Haupt, production stage manager Laura D, Glenn, hair and makeup consultant Trevor Bowen and sound designer and composer Pornchanok Kanchanabanca whose haunting soundscape pulls everything together.

I have no idea what, if any, future life Barnes has in mind for “Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!,” but it would be interesting to find out now that Markle has made her plight more public.

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