Weyni Mengesha-directed work about two Black women in the Royal family couldn't be more timely
DUCHESS! DUCHESS! DUCHESS! by Vivian J. O. Barnes, part of Steppenwolf NOW Virtual Stage. Runs to August 31. Virtual memberships $50-$75 (includes all six shows). steppenwolf.org/now. Rating: NNNN
Timing is everything. And the timing of Vivian J.O. Barnes’s Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!, directed by Soulpepper’s artistic director, Weyni Mengesha for Steppenwolf, is so perfect you might find yourself mouthing an Oprah Winfrey-style “What?” during the opening scenes.
The 35-minute filmed play – part of the legendary Chicago company’s Steppenwolf NOW Virtual Stage series of six works – debuts just a few days after Winfrey’s tell-all interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, during which Markle revealed, among other things, that life as a Royal was so restrictive and limiting that she considered suicide several times before leaving Windsor Castle. The topic of her race – specifically the Royal family’s concern over the colour of the couple’s children – was also part of that interview.
Barnes, who admits the play was partly inspired by Markle, has delivered a two-hander that imagines a meeting between two women. The Duchess (Sydney Charles) has just given birth to an heir, and she’s taking time out of her busy Royal schedule to coach The Soon-to-be-Duchess (Celeste M. Cooper) on matters of etiquette and protocol.
Both women are Black, and both seem to have known each other in a pre-Royal life.
At first, Barnes has lots of fun satirizing the rigid behaviour expected of The Soon-to-be-Duchess. You can’t sit before a person of higher rank sits down first; you mustn’t cross your legs at the knee; and so on.
But soon the play becomes more sinister, as if the Netflix series The Crown were being ingested by Jordan Peele’s Get Out.
For one thing, all isn’t quite right with The Duchess. In the telling opening moments, Charles – before we know she’s The Duchess – is seen nervously rehearsing her greeting; surely, she’s the less experienced of the two? And there’s an intentional distracted and dead look in her eyes, as if she’s dissociated – a theme that comes up repeatedly.
Meanwhile, when The Soon-to-be-Duchess is left alone, she eyes a beautiful bouquet of flowers hungrily and even eats a petal. What’s up with that?
Mengesha uses sound effectively to suggest that things are off-kilter. And on a purely technical level, the film has been so expertly fused and edited that it looks like the two women are in the same room talking to each other. (They filmed their scenes separately, with remote-operated cameras.)
What’s especially satisfying about Duchess! is that while it’s got a very specific setting, it’s clearly a metaphor for the obstacles Black women encounter at many institutions. When the women discuss memos they’ve received from above – think of “the firm” or “the institution” Markle mentioned in the Winfrey interview – they could be talking about many other places of power.
Keep your eye on emerging playwright Barnes, who’s got a great ear for dialogue and savvy sense of structure (the end of this work might leave you speechless). She’s worked at various regional theatres, is completing her MFA at UC San Diego and was a staff writer on an upcoming Amazon series. Duchess! would work beautifully in a live remount as part of a double bill. Perhaps Mengesha could even commission something by her for Soulpepper.