For those that were worried that Turn, a musical exploration of being a black woman in America through the lens of Shakespeare’s Othello, might be too academic, M’Balia Singley is here to assuage your fears. In fact, the first song of the show is called “Shakespeare Sucks.” We were all invited to flip off the Shakespeare of our collectively traumatized high school English classes. I was heartened that the show would be less academic lecture and more therapeutic party. Singley spends the show connecting characters and themes in Othello to current day America. Her capacity for empathy is staggering. We think about Iago as a corporate underling getting looked over again and again. We see Othello as a capable black man having to prove his worth at every turn. We see Desdemona, as a partner in an abusive situation. Singley prods at the work from multiple angles, wringing the work out to dry. This is largely a fun, and satisfying exercise. On top of all, the songs are great! Even when the show explores heavier themes, Singley’s expert delivery keeps the audience feeling safe.
As the show continues to get refined (this was the world premiere), I think some judicious cuts and rearranging might help the show flow. The exposition trickles out slowly in the beginning and leaves the back half of the show feeling like a race to finish telling the story of Othello. Some of the songs might be trimmed to keep the show fast-paced and tight. The show ended its short run on Saturday, but Philadelphians will get a chance to explore Shakespeare’s Othello this month once it opens at Lantern Theatre Company.
[SEI Innovation Studio at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, 300 S. Broad Street] February 26-29, 2020; kimmelcenter.org