A year ago, Nebraska Shakespeare reeled from pressure to disrupt hidebound traditions and to more boldly embrace diversity, equity and inclusion. As if being on the wrong side of a cultural reckoning wasn’t bad enough, its signature Shakespeare on the Green festival in Elmwood Park became a casualty of COVID-19 in 2020 — and of staff, board and volunteer departures in 2021. Thus, the embattled organization found itself the subject of criticism while stuck in a void. Amidst this storm entered new Artistic Director Tyrone Beasley.
Hailing from an Omaha legacy acting family, Beasley left The Rose Theater as outbound programs director only after assurances his Nebraska Shakespeare role was not symbolic but transformative. He signaled things would be different with the hip-hop “Romeo and Juliet” he adapted-directed and made the company’s touring production. He’s developing a full-length adaptation. For this summer’s return of Shakespeare on the Green, he chose “The Tempest” and “Othello” for their critical race themes.
“The biggest thing I want to do is to make it relevant and have it tie into things going on in society today,” the 56-year-old Beasley said. “To hold that mirror up to human nature to look at ourselves and society through these stories that still resonate today. ‘The Tempest’ is an allegory about colonization. Prospero lands on an island and runs roughshod over its natives. That gives us an opportunity to have that conversation. ‘Othello’ allows us to speak directly to Shakespeare and race, specifically to the problematic issues in that play. It’s an exciting time in classical theater. There is a movement to show relevancy, to demystify and decolonize Shakespeare and how Shakespeare should be done, and to diversify the people on stage in representing Shakespeare.”
“The Tempest,” directed by Scott Glasser, will feature period and modern trappings. Performance dates: June 23-26; July 8, 10, 13, 14, 16.
Under Beasley’s direction, “Othello” will take a contemporary turn. Performance dates: June 30-July 3 and July 6, 7, 9, 15, 17.
All performances are free.
Color-conscious casting emphasizes diversity in large and small roles that blend local and national talent, including veterans and newcomers to the Nebraska Shakespeare stage.
Beasley’s father, venerable stage-screen actor John Beasley, plays Prospero in “The Tempest.” Decades apart, father and son got their professional acting starts in Shakespearean plays: John in “As You Like It” and Tyrone in “The Merchant of Venice.” Tyrone paused his acting career to work at his father’s John Beasley Theatre & Workshop, for which he became artistic director.
“I came back to Omaha to help him run his theater, so it’s coming full circle to have him help initiate my first season with Shakespeare on the Green,” said Tyrone, who added that whatever else he accomplishes, “it’s real important for people to see themselves on stage and in the arts “ He’s intentionally reaching out to all segments of the community, regardless of identity, to participate as performers, crew, volunteers and audience.
The primacy of representation holds true for arts leadership, too, in which women and racial minorities are making gains.
“More people of color are in leadership positions with traditionally white-led theaters or have their own theaters. It’s great to see more people getting the opportunity to show what they can do,” said Beasley, who serves on the Shakespeare Theatre Association’s Inclusion, Equity, Diversity & Access Committee and Artistic Director Roundtable. Discussions focus on anti-racist best practices.
For Beasley, this season’s about showing we’re back, we’ve heard you, and we’re part of racial reconciliation in the community.
“It is that opportunity to show we are serious about bringing diversity on stage, behind the scenes, and moving forward working to be an inclusive and welcoming organization for the community as a whole,” he said. “We want the community to see
themselves represented. We understand it’s not a one-time thing or quick fix but an evolving process that we’re committed to. People are excited and looking forward to having Shakespeare on the Green and to the new direction we’re going with it.
“I’m excited helping make Nebraska Shakespeare more inclusive, diverse and accessible. I see a lot of opportunity for growth. We’re looking to expand the organization, to build the budget and hire more full-time people to help us build on that vision. I’m looking to inspire young people to pursue classical theater, theater in general, to find their voice through theater arts, whether on stage or in behind-the-scenes roles. We’re excited to get new people involved in all phases of production.”
He was contracted for “Romeo and Juliet” before Nebraska Shakespeare hired him as AD in a national search. Brett Bernardini got hired soon after as executive director to succeed retiring Mary Ann Bamber. It took some convincing for Beasley to leave a stable situation for one tinged by chaos.
“I saw they were committed to change. They let me know the artistic decisions would be my own and they would support them. I let them know I wanted to expand education programming, to partner with community organizations working with underserved, at-risk youth. They were excited about my ideas.”
Still, he acknowledged, “It was a big leap.”
“A lot of times life demands you take a leap of faith, step out and take risks,” he said. “Because of the potential I see for this organization, it was something I felt I had to grab hold of and take a shot at helping to change, to be a part of that change, and
to be in the room where it happens.”