Review of “The Ville: Avengeance!” at St. Louis Shakespeare Festival

    After a year’s delay caused by the pandemic, Shakespeare in the Streets has finally come to The Ville, one of the most historically important Black communities in the United States.

    This week’s opening of The Ville: Avengeance! is a triumph for St. Louis Shakespeare Festival and its presenting partner, 4theVille. They have proved their resilience and maintained the excellence that has distinguished Shakespeare in the Streets for nearly a decade.

    Like all productions in the series, The Ville: Avengeance! tells a story about a St. Louis community within the framework of a play by Shakespeare. The ghost in Hamlet has inspired playwright Mariah Richardson to create a compelling script in which The Ville’s past confronts its present.

    The voice of the past belongs to the ghost of Annie Malone, the renowned civic leader and humanitarian. The business she ran in The Ville made her the first African American woman to become a millionaire.

    Malone interacts first with the play’s narrator and the ghost of a recently deceased youth named Hopeless. Later the ghosts encounter two young men who have the same names as characters who see the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Like their namesakes, Richardson’s Hamlet and Horatio must come to terms with revelations from beyond.

    Hamlet has come to The Ville because he has inherited a house in the neighborhood. His family’s history is in The Ville, but he has doubts about its future. So does Horatio.

    Richardson’s dialogue for these characters skillfully recounts The Ville’s rise to greatness and the challenges that led to its decline. On opening night, murmurs of agreement echoed through the audience when the play evoked memories of The Ville in its prime. The stories are fascinating, and the script pulls no punches about redlining, urban renewal, and other instances of racism.

    Some of The Ville’s history emerges from delightful scenes depicting the courtships of Hamlet’s grandparents and parents. Two breaks in the proceedings feature marvelous vocal interludes by the Legend Singers.

    Under Thomasina Clarke’s astute direction, the performers bring total commitment and genuineness to their portrayals and make seamless transitions between contemporary dialogue and lines shrewdly adapted from Shakespeare.

    The stellar cast includes Michelle Dillard as Annie Malone, Brandon Ellis as Hamlet, Alex Jay as the narrator, Victor Mendez as Horatio, Tylan Mitchell as Hopeless, and Arthurine Harris and Carl Overly, Jr. as Hamlet’s forebears.

    The stage is set up on the front lawn of Annie Malone Children and Family Services at 2612 Annie Malone Drive. The scenic design by Margery and Peter Spack includes a set of large rectangular panels that are the backdrop for a wondrous set of projections created by the Spacks.

    The look and sound of the production are notably enhanced by Hatsephi Kushma’s costumes, Bryant Powell’s lighting, and Tre’von Griffith’s musical direction and compositions.

    A striking reuse of Hamlet’s great soliloquy brings the play to a powerful conclusion. It is a call to choose that deserves to be heard and heeded.

    —Gerry Kowarsky

    Photo by Allie Magee