Tennessee Shakespeare Company Brings The Bard To School

The students at Germantown Middle School haven’t studied William Shakespeare’s plays or sonnets yet. Still, they have a few preconceptions.

They’ve heard the Bard’s work is hard to translate. Old-fashioned. Irrelevant.

So the actors from Tennessee Shakespeare Company are out to shake up that staid image. The company created the Shake(speare), Rattle and Roll, a school tour that uses musical hits with Memphis roots to connect students to themes in The Taming of the Shrew and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The PTA invited the troupe to perform for the school’s annual Cultural Arts assembly. Actors Slade Kyle and Cara McHugh, clad in jeans and canvas sneakers, twirl swords as the program begins. When Soul Man blasts from a CD player, hundreds of kids start clapping to the beat.

“This city is all about music! Shakespeare is the original soul man,” exclaims Kyle.

Like Shakespeare, musicians with Stax and Sun Records addressed gender and racial inequality, the issues of their times. So a match is made with a narrative about Othello, a black man living in a white community, and the instrumentals of Booker T. & the MG’s.

Elvis croons Don’t Be Cruel in a scene about romantic pursuit from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Then students volunteer to portray laborers who celebrate Caesar’s victory over Pompey in The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. When a character demands a little respect for Pompey, the kids hear Aretha Franklin’s famous song.

Shakespeare never looked so cool.

In a scene from Romeo and Juliet, a nurse who is sent to learn where the couple will marry isn’t quick enough for the eager Juliet. Says Kyle, “London’s #1 Billboard hit in 1595 would have been Hold On, I’m Coming, sung by Sam and Dave.”

Characters feel jealousy, anger, and love — powerful emotions that middle-schoolers surely encounter. “My mommy wouldn’t let me watch this,” jokes an eighth-grade boy.

Finally, there’s time for just one more song. “Do you want to go to college? Be a doctor? Change the world?” asks Kyle. “Yes!” shout the kids. “Shakespeare will take you there,” he promises, cueing I’ll Take You There by The Staple Singers.

Kyle is the company's resident artist and education manager. He says Memphis music and Shakepeare’s work “are prolific pieces of art which were influenced by the communities in which they were born.” Judging from the way the kids have responded, the messages haven't been lost over time.

For more information, email Kyle at sladekyle@tnshakespeare.org

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