Stages

Review: Steppenwolf’s Duchess! Duchess! Duchess! Skirts Issues in Favor of Entertainment

Sydney Charles and Celeste M. Cooper. Photo by Lowell Thomas.

Many Americans seem to have a British-Royals obsession that has never made sense to me. Steppenwolf Theatre’s newest online production in its Steppenwolf NOW streaming series plays on that royals addiction. You may enjoy it even if you feel as meh about them as I do.

Duchess! Duchess! Duchess! by Vivian J.O. Barnes was written in 2018 but it feels more recent. Director Weyni Mengesha directs ensemble members Celeste M. Cooper and Sydney Charles in a 35-minute homage to the sisters-in-law married to the two royal brothers. (Oops! One is not married yet. Her character is the Soon-to-Be Duchess.)

The time is just before that royal wedding. The animatronic Duchess of Cambridge (Sydney Charles) is getting ready to meet the lively Soon-to-Be Duchess of Sussex (Celeste M. Cooper). The reason for the official get-together is protocol: The Duchess will acquaint the STBD about the quaint customs required for female royal family members. Be careful how you sit (on the edge of your seat, knees clutched together), what colors you should wear and not wear, and how you address people. “May I call you….” STBD says. “Call me Duchess,” says the Duchess. And how to curtsey, which you must do frequently. The conversation progresses from stilted to semi-friendly, with a startling ending.

Duchess! is a conversation between the two women that skirts the race issue but never addresses it; it could have been a more substantive story if the playwright had confronted race and the role of women in such institutions. Instead the play is a morsel of entertainment.

The fact that the actors playing the duchesses are Black is striking this week, just a short time after that explosive CBS interview where the former Duchess of Sussex revealed the racism she experienced in the royal family. “The play explores the bigger question of what it means to be a Black woman entering institutions that seem eager to have you but aren’t necessarily built to support you, how you start to adapt in order to survive once you’re inside of them, and the impact of bringing other people like you along,” playwright Jordan comments.

The production is notable for its sound design and original music by Pornchanok Kanchanabanca. Photography and video editing are by Lowell Thomas.

Duchess! will be available to view until August 31. You get access to six virtual productions with the purchase of a Steppenwolf NOW membership. Tickets and more information here.

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