by Lynn on March 12, 2021

in The Passionate Playgoer

Streaming from Steppenwolf Theatre Company until August. 31, 2021.

Written  by Vivian J. O. Barnes

Directed by Weyni Mengesha

Cast: Sydney Charles

Celeste M. Cooper

A stunning play about learning the rules and losing one’s voice.

Duchess! Duchess! Duchess! is a two-hander play by Vivian J.O. Barnes, that was filmed as part of the Steppenwolf NOW series of filmed dramas. This one is about two duchesses who we are very familiar with.  And it’s just an interesting coincidence that this play began streaming so soon after The Oprah, Harry and Meghan Interview. Vivian J.O. Barnes began writing the play in 2018. The streaming of the play was announced before the interview was set to be broadcast.

From the blurb about Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!:

“A Royal Wedding is looming.  The Duchess and The Soon-to-be-Duchess are meeting face-to-face for the first time to go over everything you ever needed to know to become a duchess. There are rules. There’s a way of doing things. Remember, everybody is watching. And you don’t want to know what happens if you step out of line.”

In case we need to know in future, here are some of the rules from the play:

One can’t sit before the highest-ranking person in the room sits. One cannot cross one’s legs at the knee. One always sits with the knees tightly together and crossed at the ankles.  One is not afforded the luxury of independent thought. If the higher ups in the organization don’t think you look good in green, green is removed from your wardrobe. The Soon-to-be-Duchess was told she could not eat an ice-cream cone on the street because the public must not see her tongue. And it was more advantageous to be beige than cocoa.  

The play caught my eye for many reasons. Certainly the subject matter was of interest. Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago is one of my favourite companies. It’s actor created and driven. But more than that, the director is Weyni Mengesha, Canadian, and the artistic director of Soulpepper Theatre Company, which also started out as an artist created and run theatre company. The play is written by a young Black American playwright named Vivian J. O. Barnes. She’s in her third year of her MA program in playwriting at the University of California at San Diego. She has several produced plays under her belt already so to say that this young woman is a force to be reckoned with is an understatement. 

The play is less about the Royal Family or any Royal Institution, and more about having a voice and being able to use it as Black women. Both The Duchess and The Soon-to-be-Duchess are played by Black actresses. Sydney Charles plays the very prim, proper, straight-backed Duchess. Celeste M. Cooper plays The Soon-to-be-Duchess who is lively, familiar, enthusiastic and friendly when she meets the Duchess. Both actresses bring a sense of power and detail to each role. Vivian J. O. Barnes has written the part of The Duchess as a woman who has just given birth, is obviously in pain ‘and leaking’  and all she needs and wants is rest. That of course is out of the question because there are rules and duties. And she has to tell The Soon-to-be-Duchess her responsibilities.

As The Duchess, Sydney Charles is perfectly coifed and composed. She sits straight and stiffly in her chair, knees tight together, ankles practically wrapped around each other. She but is in obvious pain from the recent birth—a week before. For all her coolness, The Duchess has lost her name, literally. When The Soon-to-be-Duchess asks what her (The Duchess’) name is Sydney Charles is all cool composure and says, “The Duchess.”  She is a representative of an organization—the Royal Family-and her opinion is not wanted. She is silent except for waving and passing on the rules to the Soon-to-be-Duchess.

As The Soon-to-be-Duchess, Celeste M. Cooper is feisty, friendly, easy-going and irreverent. She sits forward in her chair a bit hunched over, her knees are together but her feet are not, until she is told how to sit. She thinks she can change the institution.  One sees what will happen to her after seeing how the Duchess acts and treats her.

The production is terrific and so full of telling detail for which I credit the creative team and mostly director Weyni Mengesha. For example, The Soon-to-be-Duchess wears a short skirt and a wild printed sleeveless blouse opened at the throat for a few buttons. Even us commoners know that would be frowned on. Too much skin and flamboyance. Blending in to invisibility except for smiling and waving is the norm.  The Duchess wears a longer skirt and a blue long-sleeved blouse with a pussy-bow—subtext is everything—that is loosely tied at the neck as if she is on a leash.

You can see from careful direction when The Duchess is reacting with concern and disapproval  to how The Soon-To-Be Duchess crosses her legs. Sydney Charles looks slightly down with a start and we know her gaze has been caught by the way Celeste M. Cooper crossed her legs as The Soon-to-be-Duchess.

There is a moment of startling drama towards the end that certainly drives home the lack of voice these women will have to express anything let alone an opinion.

I loved the chutzpah of the piece and the gripping sense of claustrophobia and diminishment that Vivian J.O. Barnes has created regarding these two Black characters and the world they are living in.

Duchess! Duchess! Duchess! streams until Aug. 31, 2021 at

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