When the Shakespeare Festival St. Louis production of “Love’s Labor Lost” opens this weekend at Shakespeare Glen in Forest Park, it will be the first professional Shakespeare production for Naima Randolph and Kiah McKirnan.
“I learned that it’s not scary,” McKirnan said. “It’s easy – and if you let it be, it is.”
Seeing the more seasoned actors as she worked alongside them in the production directed by Tom Ridgely gave Randolph valuable insight on the process of tackling a role in a Shakespearian production.
“I’ve been taking what I’ve learned and being able to see the notes that my teachers have given me in the past and trying to apply that here,” Randolph said. “Also being around a lot of experienced actors had been extremely enlightening and helpful.”
One might assume with their natural hair and melanin that they might not fit the mold of the typical Shakespearian actors – outside of Cleopatra or Othello.
“I grew up loving history and loving fairytales,” McKirnan said. “And unfortunately, there is this idea – particularly in period drama – that you can’t put black people in this role or that role,” Randolph chimed in.
It was through Shakespeare Festival St. Louis that Randolph learned that she belonged on the very stage she will be taking to as Moth in “Love’s Labors Lost.”
She was a teenager in the company’s summer camp when she caught their production of “A Winter’s Tale” a few years back. Three female leads were African-American. They came to speak to the camp and talked about how the theater industry had evolved for African-American actresses.
“I was probably the only black woman in that space, but the fact that they spoke to that was really reassuring to me,” Randolph said.
She went on to study drama at Howard University, where she just received her undergraduate degree a few weeks ago.
While at Howard she performed in and helped produce Shakespeare’s work reimagined to reflect the black experience.
McKirnan, a Chicago native who just received her undergrad degree from Webster University earlier this month, said it was a scene she performed from “Antony and Cleopatra” that made her connect to the possibilities for people of color in Shakespeare’s work.
“That was so cool because I had never performed a role that had been written exclusively for me,” McKirnan said. But in this performance, Antony was black as well. Through their chemistry, there was another layer for audiences to latch on to with respect to the passion between the characters.
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis has been intentional with casting that reflects the world today – a mix of cultures, ethnicities and ages that display the beauty of diversity on stage.
“I like to think that we are ripping apart the fabric that has been so traditional,” McKirnan said. “I have a small role in this production, but I love the dynamic. In this group of friends there is an Asian woman, two white women and me. It’s a larger sense of truth – and it brings the play into 2019.”
Black joy in Shakespeare
“I enjoy the ‘Romeo and Juliets’ and ‘Hamlets,’ but it’s really nice to be able to sit and just laugh,” McKirnan said. She promises that is what will happen with audiences come to see “Love’s Labors Lost.”
Randolph, who plays a clown boy named Moth, will be responsible for eliciting many of those laughs.
And the idea of doing so brings a smile to her own face.
“Sometimes there is not a space for young black kids to be free – or they are perceived a certain way,” Randolph said. “But Moth is just like having the time of his life, making fun of everybody and clowning around. He is a carefree black kid bringing black boy joy.
“When I was reading it, I connected to the role in a way because I’m also a little sister and I’m used to bugging and annoying in a way and being playful.”
And in a perfect world, she would have a similar effect as the women of “Winter’s Tale” had on her several years before.
“There have been so many black women on this stage performing Shakespeare – which has been amazing,” Randolph said. “What I hope is that there is a little black girl in the audience who sees me and says, ‘She’s having the time of her life and I want to do that.’”
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’ production of “Love’s Labors Lost” continues through June 23 at 8:10 nightly at Forest Park’s Shakespeare Glen. For additional information, visit www.sfstl.com or call (314) 531-9800.