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‘Duchess’ is metaphor for Black women entering establishments not built for them

Meghan Markle and “Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!” shatter princess mythologies, which seep deep into our culture on this side of the pond.

Sydney Charles (left) and Celeste M. Cooper in “Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!” part of Steppenwolf Theatre’s virtual stage.
(Photo for Steppenwolf Theatre by Lowell Thomas)

Her legs expertly crossed, a duchess who gave birth to a baby a week before sits down with a soon-to-be duchess a week before her wedding to dish out royal advice. Protocol on sitting, speech and shedding oneself to present as picture perfect are bestowed upon the newcomer.

Sounds like a summit between Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle? No, but the British royals are the inspiration for “Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!” a virtual play running at Steppenwolf Theatre. Playwright Vivian J.O. Barnes said an image of Kate waving in public with her new baby hours after giving birth perplexed her. Then, when Meghan and Prince Harry announced their engagement, the expectations for royal family members felt ripe for interrogation.

Barnes, who is Black, reimagines the two women in “Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!” as Black. Sydney Charles plays the seasoned duchess who foists a rules-of-the-royals handbook upon the duchess marrying into the family, played by Celeste M. Cooper. “We’re lucky to be here,” the coiffed duchess is fond of saying. The patina of a fairy tale wedding is tarnished for the younger woman once she understands that individuality perishes for the sake of the institution. “Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!” serves as a metaphor about Black women entering an establishment that isn’t built for them.

The timing of the production is uncanny because it coincides with Markle’s juicy sit-down television interview with Oprah in which Markle described the racism and isolation she experienced from the monarchy, leaving her suicidal at her lowest. The British press and tabloids are still in a tizzy, tacitly defending white supremacy and denigrating Markle as an American show horse.

There’s a moment in “Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!” that would almost seem too scripted if it had been written after the Oprah interview. The soon-to-be-duchess rattles off a list of memos the monarchy compiled against her — from wearing unbecoming green to eating ice cream on the street. Her complexion is mourned as too cocoa. Beige would be better. Meanwhile, light-skinned Markle recounted how an unnamed royal raised concern when she was pregnant about how dark her baby would be.

Black feminist scholar Moya Bailey, who coined the term “misogynoir” to define anti-Black sexism — put it best in “Bitch” magazine “...misogynoir comes for all Black women, regardless of skin color and class privilege. Even Meghan, with skin so light her Blackness is debated on social media, says #MeToo when it comes to misogynoir.” A privileged actress with a winsome smile and beige skin wasn’t good enough for the palace.

Last year I binged watched “The Crown,” a Netflix drama chronicling Queen Elizabeth II’s reign. I typically have little use for the monarchy — although watching Markle get married at Windsor Castle had its own subversive ring to it as she incorporated elements of Black American tradition in the wedding. “The Crown” might be a prestige soap opera, but I find the series an aperture into 20th century global history and colonialism. The audience views how stifling and trapped the people with titles and sashes are in their real-life palatial dollhouses.

Markle and “Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!” shatter princess mythologies, which seep deep into our culture on this side of the pond. Little children are bombarded with the tiaras and princess characters. As a mother, I wish the obsession would pass into obsolescence. I realize princess cosplay is whimsical and delightful but the other side is about birthrights and classism. The movies, cartoons and dolls value outward appearances and romantic pairings.

The senior royal in “Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!” buttresses the monarchy, and when she says to the incoming royal that she’s a lucky girl. But maybe in Prince Harry’s case there’s a reversal of the damsel in distress, he’s the lucky one — a would-be princess saved him from the suffocating monarchy.

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