The first time Dawn Monique Williams encountered Romeo & Juliet in junior high, she didn’t get it. So her mom took her to Blockbuster Video, where they rented two film adaptations.
But it wasn’t until Williams watched West Side Story that Shakespeare’s tale of star-crossed lovers started making sense. And it wasn’t until college, while in an acting conservatory, that Williams fell in love with the Bard and voraciously worked her way through his canon.
“That’s when Romeo & Juliet became my favorite play,” said Williams, who has a tattoo with a quote from Twelfth Night on one arm and the Shakespeare family crest on the other.
Williams’ favorite play will close the Chautauqua Theater Company season. Under her direction, Romeo & Juliet opens at 8 p.m. Friday in Bratton Theater.
Because “everyone brings their own baggage” to the theater, Williams said she knows it will be a challenge to present such an old play that people already know — or think they know. She wants audiences to see her Romeo & Juliet with “fresh eyes.”
“There are people who have expectations of how Shakespeare should be done or how they like their Shakespeare, and that’s a lot of pressure,” Williams said. “But at the same time, I have this story to tell, and I’m just going to tell this story and hope that it resonates.”
Her production muse came in the form of her daughter, Jordyn, who is about to turn 16. Williams said she wanted audiences to “remember what it is to be young and how the world spins so fast at that age.” She also considered what it’s like to be a student encountering the play for the first time.
The resulting production will mix time periods. There will be sword fights and gowns, but also hip-hop music.
The character of Benvolio, originally written as Montague’s nephew and Romeo’s cousin, will act as a “tour guide who kind of opens the door for us and invites us into this world,” Williams said. In this production, Benvolio will be presented as a female character and portrayed by CTC conservatory actor Jules Latimer.
Even with these ideas, Williams is not looking to depart from the central story or themes of the play.
“I love the play so much,” Williams said. “I feel like I understand it so deeply, on like a molecular level I feel like I get this play. I’m probably its biggest fan. I know that could be disputed, but I just understand it so profoundly.”
A native of the San Francisco Bay area, Williams comes to CTC by way of Ashland, Oregon, where she is on the artistic staff at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. She will return to California briefly this fall, when she directs Paula Vogel’s A Civil War Christmas at Town Hall Theatre.
In June, OSF opened a production of The Merry Wives of Windsor under Williams’ direction. The OSF production of Merry Wives — often considered one of Shakespeare’s lesser works among literary critics — received mostly positive reviews for how it blended Shakespeare’s story with the music of the 1980s.
“It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the people and plots, especially considering that most people are not familiar with the play going in,” critic Hailey Bachrach wrote for Oregon Arts Watch. “But Williams’ technicolor ’80s vibe, especially the giddy musical numbers, nimbly projects a sense of comfort, guiding a path through Shakespeare’s scattered storytelling paved with familiar music.”
It was because of Williams’ work at OSF that CTC Artistic Director Andrew Borba found a director for Romeo & Juliet. OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch recommended Williams last year, knowing it was her favorite play. Borba gave Williams a call and they spoke for a long time about the play, story, characters and themes — but never about a concept.
Himself a dedicated follower of the Bard, Borba admitted he plays with the settings of Shakespearean works all the time. But he said he is concerned directors too often lead with an idea that has little to do with telling the story.
“These stories and these characters have endured over the years not due to clever concepts, but due to their originality, compelling storytelling and the varied and complex humanity of their characters,” Borba said. “Dawn prioritizes that, and I knew after this conversation she was the perfect director for us.”
CTC hired Williams in November. Although she is passionate about the project, this will only be her third time involved with a production of the play.
In 2011, she served as assistant director of a production at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts. Several years before that, she performed as the Nurse in a production with friends from college. That group pooled their resources to rent a theater in San Francisco, and all pitched in on costumes and set.
Soon after that production, Williams started thinking about directing Romeo & Juliet herself. She wrote a pitch for a directing gig, but didn’t get the job. More than 10 years later, she said some of those ideas will finally come to fruition at Chautauqua.
“I loved it so much, being inside of it, that I wasn’t done with it,” Williams said, recalling her first production. “And I don’t think I will be even after this. I don’t think I’ll ever be done with it.”