It is tempting to assume that an American drama about black women caught in the cold, hard machinery of Britain’s monarchy is a direct response to Meghan’s revelations to Oprah Winfrey earlier this week.
But theatre cannot move quite this fast and even though Vivian JO Barnes’ two-hander was inspired by the duchesses of Sussex and Cambridge, she conceived it in 2018 and it was filmed by Steppenwolf theatre at the end of last year.
The marketing gods, however, could not have aligned the stars for a greater impact for the digital premiere of a play billed as “a darker version of what might have happened if Meghan Markle had stayed”. That line gestures towards the surreal, satirical and incrementally creepy tone of this 35-minute dualogue.
Staged as a teatime meeting between The Duchess (Sydney Charles) and The Soon-to-be-Duchess (Celeste M Cooper), and directed by Weyni Mengesha, the couple’s exchanges seem deliberately wooden and gather sinister undertones that climax in the grotesque act of the final moments. The Duchess is already grounded in the ways of the institution and performing royal duties and has recently given birth (“I’m leaking”). She is meeting the Soon-to-be-Duchess in order to educate her in palace protocols for women – and black women – entering into royalty.
The Duchess seems more automaton than human – a regal version of a Stepford wife, lobotomised by institutional protocols, although sad vestiges of her former self remain.
“Pretend you’re not here,” is her advice in the event of being surrounded by paparazzi. “Say to yourself … ‘They are not doing this to me.’” The Soon-to-be-Duchess, by contrast, is bright-eyed and bursting with character. She hopes to tear down the palace’s icy traditions, though we begin to wonder how long it will take for her vivacity to be leached – or forcibly extracted. The actors add disturbing little flourishes to their performances and even when the script loses its subtlety, a greater sense of confusion and dread remains.
The Duchess reads out one palace memo that commands her never to wear green because it is not “becoming” on her. Another bears blatant suggestions of colourism that says she must endeavour to behave in a way that is “a little less cocoa” and “more beige”. The Soon-to-be-Duchess admits she does not know how to curtsy and wants to skip the formal gesture but is told that she must do so at all times, even in a meeting as informal as this one. These moments of satire gain an almost incredible prescience in their critiques on race and female submission in relation to the British monarchy.
Of course it is all just fiction, but it might be seen as a kind of bellwether as to how Americans perceived the British royal family long before Meghan’s revelations. The drama is the fourth in the six-part Steppenwolf Now virtual programming series, which brings together an array of dramatic forms and genres, from an engrossing two-part audio soap opera, Wally World, set in a department store and written by Isaac Gómez, to a thoughtfully angsty animation, Red Folder, written, directed and illustrated by Rajiv Joseph. The series, performed by the Chicago theatre’s ensemble, is well worth watching, and not just for its latest bombshell instalment.