A new work set to premiere at Nashville Ballet this week tells the story of Black Luce, also known as Lucy Negro — a known brothel owner in Elizabethan England thought to be the lover of William Shakespeare.
And the three women at the center of the ballet say her character feels personal.
Lucy Negro Redux includes poetry by Caroline Randall Williams, from her book of the same name, along with new music by Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi. Artistic Director Paul Vasterling cast Nashville Ballet principal dancer Kayla Rowser in the lead role.
91Classical's Colleen Phelps and Kara McLeland talked to Williams, Giddens and Rowser about their experiences with a piece that centers on race, sex and power. Listen to the radio version of the story above, which includes audio from the ballet, or read interview highlights below.
Who is Lucy?
Caroline Randall Williams: "Historically, Black Luce, or Luce Banham, or Lucy Batham — she appears in the prison records with lots of different aliases — was a brothel owner in Elizabethan England, so late 1500s, early 1600s. And to me she has become, through research and acts of imagination and will ... the best candidate for the identity of the Dark Lady in Shakespeare's Dark Lady Sonnets, 127-154. But in a broader sense, Lucy has become a place in a past that has alienated people who have felt othered."
Kayla Rowser: "The Dark Lady is a woman of strength. She doesn't question herself and she doesn't necessarily question others, but she definitely questions intent and demands respect and gives it."
Rhiannon Giddens: "For me, Lucy represents the regular old black person living in London in 16-whatever, and the regular old black person living in the Netherlands. ... We've been mixed, you know, for a long time."
Rowser: "The idea [of the ballet] is that Caroline is Lucy, who is me, and so is Rhiannon. So it's sort of like a trifecta of women who all represent this historical character."
What is the origin story of the project?
Williams: "A board member of the ballet gave Paul Vasterling [artistic director of the Nashville Ballet] ... a copy of my book in the hallway... and then he took the book with him and read it over the course of 26 hours one weekend and thought, 'There has to be a ballet here.' And so he ... sort of cold-called me — we'd never met — and said, 'I'd like to sit down with you and talk to you about turning your book into a ballet. Would that be something that interest you?' And I thought, 'Dreams come true.' "
Giddens: "This project came along at kind of a crossroads for me artistically... The timing of it was when I met Francesco [Turrisi] and we started working together musically. And what we each represent is basically what the two main strands of the Lucy music represent."
Rowser: "My initial reaction was just, wait, really? There's going to be a poet on stage... and Rhiannon Giddens is doing the music? And my character is actually a black woman? This can't be real. But also, I was excited to be able to just step into the studio and the first thing that is required of me is absolutely who I am."
On portraying a brothel:
Williams: "I hope that there is something provocatively dirty about it in the same way that there are provocatively dirty scenes in Hamlet and in Romeo and Juliet and all sorts of wonderful parts of Shakespeare."
Rowser: "There's definitely some sassy and dirty language in the poetry, and some of that is conveyed through the steps of the choreography. But I think something that's special about ballet is it's just naturally so beautiful that even if it has grit to it, it's still so refined."
Williams: "When it comes to the question of Lucy as a brothel owner, I resist the notion that that part's dirty. ... I think that Lucy being a brothel owner, if we think about her in the context of Elizabethan England, of how involuntary so many unions were and how commerce-based so many sexual interactions were in that time, I think that her choice to claim some kind of power in a system like that has to be an empowered one. ... I think it's an act of will and agency."
On making Giddens' song "Purchaser's Option" part of Lucy Negro Redux:
Giddens: "It's all about the survival of the soul through kind of unimaginable things that happen. ... So when you think about Lucy, as Caroline said, owning this work, she is taking power for herself. And this song works so well because that's what's happening: 'It doesn't matter what you throw at me... I will stay myself and I will be strong.' "
Giddens: "He [Turrisi] put it in 7 [7/4 time signature] on the piano, and it just blew me away. You know, I love it on the banjo in 4. But it has this whole other even richer emotional landscape on the piano because of just the depth that he can pull up. And putting it in 7 is so genius because ... you're kind of off-balance, but then it actually puts even more urgency to the chorus because there's no space. You're just in-in-in and then it just works so beautifully."
On putting it all together:
Giddens (referring to Williams): "She's so erudite, and she knows so much of that literature and the history, but she also has this really deep core connection to the south in her identity as an African-American woman. So there's a lot of these sort of parallels going on and what's going on in the poetry. She has this combination of things in her poetry that I could sort of represent in a way — because I have classical training but then I'm very much apprentice trained on folk instruments."
Williams (referring to Lucy): "She opens up the conversation to allow all of us to feel included in a classical space, in a Shakespeare space, and especially women who are described as 'dark women' who are described as 'coloured women' with 'black wires for hair,' as Shakespeare describes her in Sonnet 131. So Lucy is this historical figure, but she's also an idea and an act of inclusivity and will."
Rowser: "I don't think there's been a character throughout many ballets at all, that I can think of, that is actually a black woman. ... It's a character that very explicitly does not look like, you know, maybe most of our audience members. But I hope that will get new audience members in the door, and I hope that our current audience will still love and support and encourage works that require something different."
Lucy Negro Redux premieres at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center on February 8-10. For more audio, check out Rhiannon Giddens, Francesco Turrisi, and Caroline Randall Williams on Live in Studio C in 91Classical's archive.