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Twelfth Night costume sketches Courtesy of Yale Repertory Theatre

Twelfth Night costume sketches Courtesy of Yale Repertory Theatre )

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Set designer Riw Rakkulchon says he wants to create a world that is inviting and connects to his generation, while also not competing with “the fabulousness of the costumes.” Photo courtesy of Yale Repertory Theatre

Set designer Riw Rakkulchon says he wants to create a world that is inviting and connects to his generation, while also not competing with “the fabulousness of the costumes.” (Photo courtesy of Yale Repertory Theatre )

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Carl Cofield. Photo courtesy of Yale Repertory Theatre

Carl Cofield. (Photo courtesy of Yale Repertory Theatre )

Twelfth Night Goes Afro-Futurist

Published Mar 06, 2019 • Last Updated 11:23 am, March 05, 2019

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It’s a brave new multi-cultural world for the upcoming production of Yale Repertory Theatre’s production of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which runs Friday, March 15 to Saturday, April 6 at the University Theatre, 222 York Street, New Haven.

Some audiences might identify with Viola as she steps ashore in a strange new land after a shipwreck and asks, “What country, friends, is this?”

It’s all part of director Carl Cofield’s vision in which he injects one of the Bard’s most popular romantic comedies with a vibrant visual look that he calls “Afro-futurist.”

Think of the hip-tribal look of a film that recently won several Academy Awards including Best Costume Design, Black Panther. Kind of. But set in the future, not the past.

“It’s inspired by the Afro-Punk Movement on Instagram and other social media, in which brown and black people reclaim traditional Western narratives and create their own mythology based on the world around them,” he says.

Cofield says he is staying true to the Shakespearean text but that doesn’t mean he can’t add a different layer of interpretation, too.

“We can still tell the story, but one that will resonate in a different way when we see people unlike people we’ve seen before play it,” he says.

Radical Takes

Cofield says an example he uses about radical takes on Shakespeare is that “The Star Spangled Banner” can be sung in a traditional way at the start of a baseball game and it’s usually sung in a standard and overly familiar way—“and then there’s the way Jimi Hendrix plays it.”

The design team that is creating the visual landscape of Ilyria, which is set 30 or 40 years in the future, is made up of Yale School of Drama grad students: set designer Riw Rakkulchon, costume designer Mika H. Eubanks, lighting designer Samuel Chan Kwan Chi, projections designer Brittany Bland, and sound designer Frederick Kennedy.

“It’s absolutely a world in which I would want to live,” says set designer Rakkulchon. “It’s so inviting. It’s a place that connects especially to my generation where sexuality and diversity are accepted, a world without racism and there’s no such thing as discrimination.”

‘You Can Just Be Yourself’

The design is very functional: open, tall, with a shifting perspective “and you recognize right away that we’re in Africa,” Rakkulchon says, adding that he didn’t want the set to compete with the fabulousness of the costumes.

“Carl told us he was inspired by the huge Afro-punk festival in Brooklyn,” says Eubanks, “It’s almost a microcosm of a world where you are allowed to be accepted as your true self whether it’s your sexuality, your blackness. Natural hair and African prints and bright colors are celebrated. People express themselves through clothing and music.”

Eubanks says she was inspired also by musician-artists such as Sun Ra, George Clinton, and Beyoncé.

“It’s been fun having the freedom to go and imagine what that future could be,” she says. “The great thing about Ilyria is that it’s a world where Eurocentric ideas of beauty and culture are not the foundation of the world, not that it’s excluded.

“I love looking at pictures the African diaspora,” says Eubanks, “especially women from the Caribbean and New Orleans with their big brimmed hats and jewelry and colors. It’s going to be a vibrant show. It’s been my dream come true to design for a show like this, a show that celebrates a Afrocentric family, one where you can just be yourself.”

Twelfth Night runs Friday, March 15 to Saturday, April 6 at the University Theatre, 222 York Street, New Haven. For tickets and information, visit www.yalerep.org or call 203-432-1234.

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