Haven’s Ian Damont Martin gives ‘Titus Andronicus’ a contemporary, inclusive staging

In his new production of the play opening this week at the Den Theatre, Martin has turned Aaron from the lone character of color onstage — as he is in most productions — into one among many.

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Colin Jones (center) and the cast of Haven’s “Titus Andronicus,” which is being presented at the Den Theatre. Photo by Austin D. Oie

Colin Jones (center) and the cast of Haven’s “Titus Andronicus,” which is being presented at the Den Theatre.

Austin D. Oie

Before he became fascinated with “Titus Andronicus” through a college seminar on William Shakespeare’s early plays, Haven artistic director Ian Damont Martin had mostly encountered the play through the lens of a single character: the villainous Aaron the Moor.

“As a black person who is participating in theater and has been in Shakespeare productions, the two characters that are given to you to look at for monologue work, or even in production work, are Othello and Aaron,” explained Martin.

Titus Andronicus

‘Titus Andronicus’

When: Through March 5

Where: Haven at the Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee

Tickets: $35-$60

Info: havenchi.org

In his new production of the play opening this week at the Den Theatre, Martin has turned Aaron from the lone character of color onstage — as he is in most productions — into one among many. He’s set the story inside what he describes as a “black imperial state,” pulling from sources like the Black Panthers and the medieval Mali Empire in West Africa.

“There are certain reorientations of identity and character — and gender, even — that we are playing with that really just unlock a whole new sort of world and meaning for much of the text,” he said. “It means something different for a black man to come home from this military campaign, having buried 21 of his sons in service for his country. Yes, it means something on the page. But when a black man puts that in his mouth — and today — it means something different.”

“Titus Andronicus” was the Bard’s first tragedy, and it rarely ranks high on the Shakespearean power grade. One of the factors is blood: The play spills a lot of it. After returning home from war, the titular Roman general is shocked when his defeated foe, Tamora, is then taken by the slimy emperor Saturninus as his queen. Subsequently, Tamora wastes little time enacting her bloody revenge on Titus and his family for the murder of her children, igniting what actor Colin Jones, who portrays Titus, described as an “endless cycle of revenge.”

“You’ve got the hero who — yeah, I guess, the ‘hero’ of this play — who starts everything and is sort of at a loss when that fails. It just leads to more pain,” said Jones. “You can only get so far with that one skill, but if that’s all you have — if all you have a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.”

In one of the play’s most infamous scenes, Titus’s daughter Lavinia (Tarina Bradshaw) is sexually assaulted and mutilated, with her hands cut off and her tongue removed by Tamora’s children. In the play’s original text, Lavinia’s uncle, Marcus, is the one who discovers her. But here, Marcus isn’t Lavinia’s uncle; it’s her aunt, played by actress Gabrielle Lott-Rogers.

“It means something different,” said Martin, “that is actually an older black woman finding her young black niece after this act and not being able to reckon with it — and then to say, let me speak on your behalf.” He classified that shift in this scene as one of the production’s cornerstones.

“Titus Androncius” is Martin’s directorial debut as Haven’s head honcho — he took over as artistic director last year — but that’s not the production’s only “first.” Jones has been working onstage in Chicago since the 1980s, but his performance as Titus will be his first Shakespearean lead. He called acting Shakespeare his secret passion, adding “but now it’s not gonna be a secret anymore.”

For Martin, the play speaks to Haven’s mission of helping to define a “new canon” — an effort that he says goes beyond simply producing new work.

“It’s really sort of pulling the thread on the new canon, on who gets to canonize work and why is the canon the canon?” said Martin. “Why is Shakespeare canon? Why is Arthur Miller? I don’t think it’s enough to just make additions. I think we’ve got to investigate that as well.”

Alex Huntsberger is a local freelance writer.

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