Art Not Without Ambition

SEP 16, 2021

An interview with Macbeth In Stride creator and performer Whitney White.

A previous version of this article originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of the A.R.T. Guide. The article has been updated for this edition.

Whitney White

In Macbeth In Stride, you perform as Lady Macbeth and also sing original music inspired by rock, pop, and gospel. What inspired that combination?

I came to this profession as a singer, and before I got into directing and writing and devising, I was a performer. There’s something about live music that has always felt liberating to me. Music has no prejudice. You turn on the Rolling Stones, Tina Turner, or Nirvana, and men, women, children of all ethnic backgrounds and religions can be drawn into the same space and feel united. Music has this incredible way of making people a people.

Then I fell in love with theater, and I truly fell in love with the words of Shakespeare. I am a Black woman from Chicago, and I always saw my experience reflected in Shakespeare’s world. However, often I would see these great plays live, and these productions wouldn’t represent my experience or even a world I recognized. Yet, when I read Shakespeare, I totally hear my world. I hear my friends and family, and I see the world that I live in. So I wondered how I could unite all these worlds that I love: music, Shakespeare, really high-quality performative art, and entertainment.

Combining Shakespeare with rock also felt like a way to make a production of Shakespeare that any person could hear and understand. I always wanted to make a piece that my family could come see and totally be a part of. So for Macbeth In Stride, it doesn’t matter what your education level is, what you do, or who you are—I’m working to construct the show so that every person in the audience can understand it and feel a part of it.

How did your work on the piece begin?

I was an MFA student at Brown/Trinity Rep, and we had to create solo performances. I was wondering what to do, and I made a Venn diagram of everything I was passionate about at the time. The first circle was pure rock and roll: bands that sing and play everything live, no robots singing at you. Then the next circle was Shakespeare—specifically Macbeth. I had worked on Macbeth on my own; I never got to act in it. And I thought Lady Macbeth, in particular, was fierce.

Macbeth In Stride combines Lady Macbeth's text with vintage American rock and roll.

What drew you to Lady Macbeth?

As I was reading Lady M., I thought, “This lady isn’t evil, she’s just ambitious.” She’s sitting at home, and she gets a letter that says, “Hey, the world can be your oyster. What should we do, babe?” and she decides, “I’m going to make this happen.” I think that as women, many times in our lives, opportunity comes our way, and we have to be the catalyst for attaining it—as a mother, as a partner, or as a woman working in the world. I also identify with the theme of love and competition within a relationship: how things get crunchy when you dare to aspire for more than your partner, or when your partner gets you in a sticky situation and you have to solve it. That, to me, is pure drama in a really exciting, human way.

And as an ambitious female myself, I also know that there are many ways in which women are discouraged from ambition. I think it’s very interesting that, often if you’re really ambitious in Shakespeare and you happen to be a lady, you are very likely to not make it to the end of the play. So I wondered, “What is this about? What is Shakespeare warning me about as an ambitious woman?” As I was thinking about this, I kept reading the text over and over again, and I started to hear a very vintage, gritty, nasty rock sound reminiscent of Tina Turner and The Doors and The Rolling Stones.

Macbeth In Stride is the first in a series of concert pieces, focusing on female characters in Shakespeare, that will debut at A.R.T. over the next few seasons. What can you share about the music in each of those shows?

Each piece has manifested for me musically in a different way, dependent on the characters’ personalities—they each have their own sound. Up next I’m working on Emilia, who is Iago’s wife in Othello. That sound is sadder, more quiet rock—I’m inspired by Nirvana and contemporary grunge groups. Then Cleopatra will come after that, and with her, I’m inspired by soul and electronic music by fierce recording artists such as Sade and SZA and Lizzo.

When you’re performing Lady M. or Emilia or Cleopatra, what is your relationship as a performer to those roles? Are you inhabiting them? Are you in conversation with them?

I feel scarily in conversation with these women. As a performer, it’s liberating for me to step into these roles, but I am also perplexed, concerned, and totally disturbed by their untimely demises. Aesthetically, over the next three or four years, I want to reckon with the fact that these women are really well written, but the overall message is not great. Why do so many of these stories about these awesome, bold, ambitious ladies end with suicide? And even the less ambitious ones are murdered: Emilia is meek for the entirety of Othello, and then the moment she opens her mouth, she is killed. For some reason, the stories don’t work without their deaths; I think that’s an unfortunate legacy that we continue to live with.

Where does the title of this piece come from?

It’s very interesting to me that each of these women has a man in stride with them. So I wondered what would happen if we entered the story from Lady M.’s perspective, thinking of Macbeth as trying to keep up with her. She’s riding the horse, and he’s just keeping stride. I should say that the performances aren’t all a one-woman show: I perform with a band and an ensemble. Together for the course of the concert, we will look at the effects of female ambition and the power dynamic in a tragic heterosexual relationship. And the audience gets to take both our sides. The piece is done for the audience in the same way that a concert is: the audience is the judge and the jury.

The company of What to Send Up When It Goes Down.

A.R.T. audiences might have seen your work as the director for What to Send Up When It Goes Down, which also includes the audience in pretty radical ways. As an artist making work today, how are you thinking about the role of interaction between audiences and performers?

Well, that interaction is scary because there’s a kind of nakedness about it. You turn out to the audience and, as much as you’re giving them something, you also leave yourself open to receive something, too.

What to Send Up When It Goes Down profoundly changed my life; I think that all of my work has been informed by it. It was written by a brilliant writer, Aleshea Harris. She is incredibly bold, and she birthed this huge experiment in communal performance. When I first read it, I was like “Oof, how am I going to do this?” I think we’re going through a lot as Americans: we’re working really hard, we’re going through a lot of political change, people have very long days, they have their own families and lives to deal with. How are we going to ask 100 people to come really be together and look at this issue of racialized violence against Black bodies? I wondered, “Are we going to be able to do this? In a safe way?”

Each step of the way, I gave into the piece more and more, to Aleshea’s language and vision, and we were able to build cathartic experience for people. And that taught me that people are ready for this: they are ready to feel, to breathe, to be together, and to look these issues in the eye. We don’t have to be fearful about what people can or cannot take.

So in my concert plays, I’m just trying to maintain that same amount of honesty, and to ask how people can take in Shakespeare together. Because when you say “Shakespeare” to someone, the word comes with connotations of education, privilege, access, whiteness, money. And I say that as someone who went to an MFA program and did have access to that material, and I know how much theatre can shut people out when really, I think, the plays were written to invite people in.

You mentioned catharsis, and that’s a word that haunts theater history both in terms of what it means and in terms of whether it is possible. For you as a theatermaker, what does catharsis mean, and how is that idea active in Macbeth in Stride?

I think that catharsis, in its simplest definition, means to release—it’s a process of releasing. And when you release something, you are relieving yourself from a very strong emotion, or you are even just feeling. We have all these feelings and emotions locked up inside of us as a result of our very complicated and often traumatic lives as human beings, as temporal bodies that will not always be here. And when I think about catharsis, I think about asking the audience, “Do you feel anything? Are you remembering anything? When you see this, when you hear this music, when you smell this, when you feel this rhythm, does it take you somewhere? Do you feel relieved?”

I know that What to Send Up achieves catharsis because the whole piece is meant to celebrate and release energy every single night for one person who has been killed. But with the five-part concert series, I’m focused first and foremost on the feminine experience. And I say feminine, rather than woman, because we all have the feminine in us. These concerts take a look at what happens when women and the feminine are willing to fight for what they want.

Besides all that, I think music facilitates catharsis. I think part of the reason why What to Send Up is so effective is because the play contains so much rhythm and melody, and that makes you feel something. You can hear your favorite Nirvana song and just bawl and release, right? And that’s not because Nirvana made that song for you especially, or because the lyrics speak to you specifically. If you hit the right progression of chords, you can feel something. So if the story doesn’t get you, I hope the music will. And hearing it out of a different body—a Black female body—might shake something loose in you.

As a Black female, what has it been like for you to intersect with Lady M, and with everything that she has been historically and has not been and might be?

It’s funny: it just felt natural. That might sound odd. I’m certainly not a Scottish Queen—I’m not opposed to being one, if anyone is listening—but I think when you really look at Lady M.’s text, and you read every single word she says, she just sounds like a woman. She sounds like a woman who wants things, who gets in over her head and doesn’t go about getting her goals the best way. You shouldn’t kill people to get what you want. I don’t think that’s the message. But she sounds like a conflicted woman who has desire, and I just identified with that, and I’m going to claim it as mine so that other people like me can also claim these stories as theirs. Maybe someone will come see our concert, and then the next time someone invites them to a Shakespeare play, they’ll think, “Yeah, I’ll go to that. That’s for me.” Or an actor will think, “I can audition for Lady M. That’s me.” And more people will come on into the water. The water’s fine. And it’s for you.

Interview by Robert Duffley, A.R.T. Editor & Assistant Dramaturg


Image Credits
Whitney White: Liv Slaughter.
Whitney White in a workshop for Macbeth In Stride: Tess Mayer.
The company of What to Send Up When It Goes Down: Lauren Miller.


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