The cast of 'Lear' on stage at Cal Shakes
Lear is a modern-verse version of Shakespeare’s King Lear written by Oakland native Marcus Gardley at Cal Shakes. Credit: Kevin Berne

Lear, Cal Shakes, Bruns Amphitheater, through Oct. 2

On a recent evening, Marcus Gardley’s remarkable modernization of Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear at Cal Shakes shone as brightly as its luminous two-story set of a San Francisco house under Orinda’s night sky.

This world premiere is a poetic production that mirrors Shakespeare’s story, but reimagines it with a 21st-century, modern-verse vocabulary that the audience will more readily understand.

Scroll down to read our conversation with Lear’s award-winning writer Marcus Gardley, who says writing plays was the last thing on his mind when he was at Oakland’s Castlemont High.

In Gardley’s version, the aging Lear (virtuoso performance by James A. Williams) is a Bay Area real estate magnate who lives in the Fillmore District in the late 1960s. It’s a difficult time because of the city’s “redevelopment” plans that are dismantling the area, not to mention the political unrest surrounding the Vietnam War and the Black Panthers. Lear, filled with hubris and vanity, divides his kingdom between his two falsely flattering, greedy daughters (well-acted by Emma Van Lare and Leontyne Mbele-Mbong). But he banishes and disinherits his favorite daughter, the faithful, loving, but truthful Cordelia (multitalented Sam Jackson).

Most of the play’s action involves the machinations of Lear’s two duplicitous daughters, Lear’s disillusionment with them, and his emerging mental illness. Subplots involve the Earl of Gloucester (excellent Michael J. Asberry) and his illegitimate son, Edmund (terrifically scheming Jomar Tagatac). Unhappy with his bastard status, Edmund deviously tries to displace his older brother and the legitimate heir, Edgar (effective Dane Troy). Ultimately, there is a battle among the three daughters and their husbands for Lear’s domain — but few live to see the resolution and restoration of the kingdom.

Gardley has added new and modernizing touches to Shakespeare’s version. Shakespeare’s Fool is now The Comic. Convincingly played by Sam Jackson, the Comic does some sardonic riffs on the political scene. A new character, the Black Queen (terrific Velina Brown), arrayed in a white floor-length gown, sings soulful numbers accompanied by a small jazz band (great music by Marcus Shelby). Poor Tom (Edgar in disguise) now has the attributes of an Uncle Tom.

This production of Lear has a personal bittersweet aspect since it is Cal Shakes’ Artistic Director Eric Ting’s final show. After seven years of inspired creativity, Ting is leaving to join his family in New York. Lear offered Ting a second chance to collaborate with Gardley after the super-successful 2017 black odyssey.

In some ways (dare I say it!) Gardley’s Lear enhances the Bard’s King Lear for modern audiences. Although a tiny bit too long for me (it’s one of Shakespeare’s more lengthy plays), Lear is great theater and a total pleasure.

Lear runs at the Bruns Amphitheater at Cal Shakes through Oct. 2, 2022. The performance is approximately three hours, including one 15-minute intermission. Cal Shakes advises the audience to dress warmly in layers since the temperature may drop during evening performances. There is a complimentary shuttle from Orinda BART. Single tickets range from $35–$70 (subject to change). Evenings at 7:30 p.m., Sunday matinees at 4:00 p.m.; select Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. Proof of vaccination (or a recent negative test) is required for admittance. Masking is encouraged but not required in the outdoor amphitheater. For information, extended dates, and tickets, visit Cal Shakes’ website, or telephone 510-548-9666.

Marcus Gardley says let your hair down, ‘get a bit loud’ when you go see ‘Lear’

Marcus Gardley who grew up in Oakland and never expected to become a writer, says his Lear at Cal Shakes is a celebration of language and family. Courtesy of Cal Shakes Credit: Courtesy of Cal Shakes

Marcus Gardley, who was born and raised in Oakland, is an acclaimed poet, playwright, screenwriter, and TV writer. He won the 2022 WGA award for best adapted long-form series for MAID (Netflix). His play The House That Will Not Stand had its world premiere with Berkeley Rep in January 2014 and won the 2019 Obie Award. His play, black odyssey, was produced by Cal Shakes in 2017. In TV, he has written for several series, including Boots Riley’s I’m A Virgo (Amazon), The Chi (Showtime), Foundation (Apple), and Tales of the City (Netflix). His feature adaptation of The Color Purple musical will be released in theaters in December 2023, and Warner Brothers just picked up his Marvin Gaye biopic.

Gardley spoke to us about Lear at Cal Shakes, his work in TV and the movies, growing up in Oakland, and how he grew into a life as a writer. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity

Yes, I’ve been back and forth. I’ve been living in LA for about five years. I’ve been working in TV now, so I have to live here. But I miss Oakland, my favorite city in the world.

What made you want to place the setting for ‘Lear’ in the Fillmore District in San Francisco in the 1960s?

I wanted this production to be close to home. Most of what I write takes place in the Bay Area. King Lear resonated with the notion of being unhoused and the loss of memory. In the play, Lear has trouble with his memory. I’m always talking about what we as a community forget. Generations pass down stories and heirlooms in our community. What is kept in the family and community are major themes in this production of King Lear.

Did you know people who lived in the Fillmore District during that redevelopment?

Yes, my great-grandmother did. Growing up, she instilled with me the importance of buying a house in the Bay Area — something to hang on to, to be proud of. In Oakland, where I grew up, it was a major thing that you would inherit the house your family lived in. Unfortunately, we watched the neighborhood decline as those children didn’t care for the homes as their parents did. That really stayed with me, and I wanted to write about that in this play.

Why do you think they gave up their legacy?

The neighborhood became infected with drugs and became violent. So, some moved away. They didn’t have the same values their parents had and didn’t really grasp the importance of keeping those homes, so they would lose them. Some of them didn’t pay their taxes. Others let them fall to ruin.

How did your version of ‘King Lear’ get started?

Oregon Shakespeare Festival commissioned writers to do a modern translation of every Shakespeare play. My first version was King Lear located in Britain. Then Cal Shakes called me; they loved the play. They wanted me to put my own spin on it. I told them I would love to place it in the Bay Area, and I have been obsessed with the Fillmore District since my grandmother passed away. So much about the play coincided with the Fillmore while it was being redeveloped and dismantled by freeways. Such a rich history there.

Can you tell me about the music in Lear?

It’s been an exciting adventure, a happy accident. I love the music, and I love Marcus Shelby. I’ve worked with him before. I knew I wanted jazz because, in the 1960s, the Fillmore District used to be called the Harlem of the West. We didn’t know how jazz would sound against the highly poetic language, but it’s been a beautiful marriage. 

How much of the original Shakespeare plot of King Lear are you keeping?

I kept all of it. There’s a beautiful marriage between the Fillmore story and the Lear story without changing the plot. It fits like a puzzle piece. It just takes place in a more specific area. The characters are more like people you know from the 1960s.

What were you like as a student at Oakland’s Castlemont High?

I was very shy, a bit of a loner, and obsessed with books. I did have several friends but kept to myself. I was heavily involved in my father’s Church. I had a sheltered life. I would leave school, go to Church, and spend most of the week there. I had a great time. I loved my high school years and loved Oakland. If you had asked me then, writing plays was the last thing on my mind. I intended to go into international business or pre-med. Life is funny. I don’t know how I ended up here.

Is there anything else that you would like our readers to know?

I hope that people who come to see my plays will feel free to interact and have a communal experience. It’s OK to laugh and sing along, be a bit loud — like a church service, so long as you can hear the actors. Let your hair down, and enjoy. Lear is a celebration of language and family. Since the pandemic has caused such isolation, I’m hoping this play can be part of what brings up back together as a community.   

Emily S. Mendel

Freelancer Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although now a 37-year East Bay resident), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...