This February, Brooklyn Repertory Theater will present a fresh interpretation of Chekov’s Three Sisters, the third production of its inaugural season. A young theater company, the Bushwick-based Brooklyn Rep has made some precise choices in distinguishing their version from previous mountings of the show. Instead of the early 20th century the play is set in the early 21st. Instead of Russia, the action takes place in New York. And, in perhaps the most striking change, this time our three sisters—Olga, Másha, and Irina—are of different ethnicities.
I recently sat down and talked to Brooklyn Rep Artistic Director and actress Elisabeth Ng (playing Olga), as well as cast members Tahirah Stanley (Irina) and Ilinca Tuvene (Natasha; also the company’s co-founder with Ng) about the cultural relevance of their interpretation and how it feels to open up this classical material for a contemporary audience.
Ng, Stanley, and Tuvene are clearly united on one front: this was going to be a multiracial show from the onset. More importantly, they didn’t want to create a piece that was investigating racial tensions or exploring the cultural differences that come with varied ethnicities. Instead, they set out to provide the audience with the image of a classical text but filled with the types of folks you see in a contemporary metropolitan landscape. “I like the idea of normalizing race,” Ng tells me of this decision to bring multiple ethnicities to her company’s production of Three Sisters. Stanley picks up on this point: “It’s so normal for us,” she says. “It’s a crazy thing that we’re even making it so intentional to have Three Sisters be diverse. It’s a just a clear representation of our lives today.” The women drive home a very important point: as the cultural landscape of America shifts, the population will be less and less monochromatic with each approaching year. Brooklyn Rep wants to seize the inevitability of this future and show, through theater, that, no matter our race, we’re all in the same boat.
“A lot of people will talk about how colorblindness is offensive to minorities and how, in being color-conscious, diversity should mean bringing voice to our different experiences,” Stanley continues. “I agree. That’s very true. But I also like the idea of bringing together race. So when I see you, I can see we’re both the same, I respect our differences, but we go through the same issues in life.” It’s refreshing to hear this—the actual pursuit of harmony in the changing landscape of American ethnicity is more and more overlooked. I find it incredibly encouraging to hear the hope in their voices as they speak to putting harmony first. Ng picks up the point, “I feel that sometimes the current discourse on theater becomes very blame-y. Very aggressive. We wanted to create something inclusive. We’re not dealing with racial issues in the play, but human life issues.”
“So there’s not white-bashing in this show,” Tuvene immediately quips.
Brooklyn Rep’s Three Sisters intends to demonstrate that we can find racial harmony and unity by acknowledging the suffering every human can experience, regardless of race. “I wanted to do a classical piece that explores human conditions, and Chekhov does that beautifully,” Ng tells me.
“I think a person has to believe in something, or has to look for something to believe in, otherwise his life is empty, empty,” says Másha, arguably the most chipper of the sisters, in the play’s second act. It’s unambiguous that Elisabeth Ng fundamentally believes in the societal merit of her multiracial interpretation of Three Sisters and hopes it will have a positive impact on its audience. Ng’s vision is bold and shrewd; by casting different ethnicities in Three Sisters she intends to demonstrate that all races are united under the banner of battling life’s toils—by our human feelings of dissatisfaction, isolation, love, and contempt. Considering how tense the climate is within the contemporary conversation of race, it feels truly noble to make a piece of art that gives a glimpse of solidarity between ethnicities. And I imagine Chekhov would be delighted to know an interpretation of his work is being used for such a cause. After all, it was the toiling against life’s cruel circumstances that interested him, not the color of the skin of the toilers.
Ng and company has taken on a responsibility in presenting a classical work through the lens of colorblind casting. When Ng says she wants to present all of us as the same, she says this with the kind of authenticity you may not expect to find in a theater producer. These women aren’t just trying to put up a show to further their careers or interpret a classical text because they’re ambitious theater makers. Armed with meager resources but resolute ambition, they want to give their audience a show they won’t forget and to leave them experiencing the feelings elicited by a Chekhov play while asking new questions about race and equality.
Doubling down on a message on inclusivity is their premise, and they’re not taking the execution of that premise lightly. They take the why of this production seriously and, in doing so, practice what they preach: the entire cast is as diverse as the three sisters, and the crew is as varied as the cast. Without being too calculated about it, the people behind the scenes are reflections of the people onstage.
Ng and company further explains the how of their ambition: “We’re not changing the language or cutting from the piece,” Ng tells me when asked how she is adapting Chekhov through a colorblind lens. “We’re sticking to the 1935 Constance Garnett version of the play.” But by keeping the text as is, they’re forced to confront the problems many adaptors of Shakespeare face—how to communicate the specificity of the new time and location, and explore how this affects their characters, all while not changing the text. Brooklyn Rep’s solution to the “how to adapt” question involves adding a meta narrative to the production. The characters aren’t just Olga, Másha, and Irina, but actors playing at Olga, Másha, and Irina as a type of modern drama therapy. It’s a big gamble using such a framing device, but if it lands it has the potential to truly show, and let audiences feel, Three Sisters in a way they never quite have before.
In the overly competitive world of Off-Off Broadway, a landscape that has become the playground of productions with budgets sometimes as high as 100k+, one hopes the small, new, and visionary Brooklyn Rep will succeed and that their voice will emerge. They may have an uphill struggle, much like the characters in Three Sisters, but these women are well met to the challenge.
Three Sisters, by Anton Chekhov, directed by Victor Cervantes, Jr., runs February 4 – 7 at 4th Street Theatre.
Cast: Mike Turner, Elisabeth Ng, Anna Tempte, Tahirah Stanley, Ilinca Tuvene, Fabio Motta, Ran Levy, Alexander Lambie, Roberto Sanabria, Erick Betancourt, Robert Lee Leng, Stephen McFarlane, Renee Petrofes. Lighting Design: Jason Fok. Sound Design: Tom Mulvaney. Set Design: Victor Cervantes Jr. Props Design: Lisa Purrone.
Joshua Young is a proud member of The Public Theater’s 2018-2019 Emerging Writers Group. His plays include Lime-A-Rita Racist (The Public Theater’s 2019 Spotlight Reading Series) and Red Room on a Dark Web (Primary Stages ESPA Drills 2019 Reading Series) and his writing has recently been in The Flea’s Serials and The Tank’s 7×7. He’s the founder of The Playwriting Collective, a 501c3 dedicated to supporting artistic voices from lower economic backgrounds.