Jiehae Park’s ‘Peerless’ Reimagines ‘Macbeth’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s ReDiscovery Reading Series

There was a significant “first” at the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) 2018-19 ReDiscovery Reading Series at the Lansburgh Theatre this week. It was a reading of the enthralling, fearless Peerless, written by Silver Spring native, Jiehae Park.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 2018-2019 ReDiscovery Reading Series opened on October 22 with Peerless by Jiehae Park. Image courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company.

What was the first? For STC, it was the first time for a mainstage reading of an Asian-American playwright. Then again in general, that there are not a great many plays written by Asian-American authors produced on area stages.

Park’s Peerless is a modern narrative that uses The Bard’s Scottish Play as a super-structure. Playwright Park has penned a crafty, clever tale about pressures placed on ambitious 21st-century teenagers in a time of cutthroat competition to get into an Ivy school. It is also about what stresses teens place upon themselves to “make it” in a culture focused on STEM and test scores. Peerless premiered at Yale Rep in 2016 and has also been produced by Cherry Lane in NYC.

So, what is Peerless specifically about? Well, here are two sentences from STC’s program: “Two Asian American twins have worked their whole life to get into The College, only to be rejected in favor of their classmate. So they decide to kill him.”

As STC Artistic Fellow Madeline Pages writes regarding Peerless based upon an interview with Park: “Macbeth serves as a frame for Park’s adaptation, and within it she explores a big soup of questions about diversity, entitlement and group-identity, access…” Certainly, some of the matters raised in the play are reminiscent of issues currently under litigation in a case brought against Harvard University that has been making front-and-center news in the past several weeks.

What struck me first about Park’s play was the nature in which she raised affirmative action and preferences. Park lays it out quite directly. If there is one admissions slot available at an Ivy, how are decisions made when there is a competition with a 1/16 Native American, an African-American male or an Asian-American each seeking admittance to a very select institution?

What then struck me was the manner in which Park brought into Peerless issues of class, the dualism that an individual can have in their own public presentation over time, and the difficulty of Westerners to distinguish Asian Americans.

Those attending the free STC reading of Peerless had a treat. The reading featured actors Teresa Lim, Tiffany Villarin, Keith Royal Smith, Laura C. Harris, Zack Powell, and Lisa Tejero. Both Villarin and Lim performed in Peerless before, at Yale Rep and Cherry Lane. They were impressive. As the twins, they had rhythm of speech when together, a kind of breathless, secret language for themselves. They “acted” the reading behind music stands with book in hand so well I did not miss costumes or a set.

This year’s ReDiscovery Reading Series has been developed by Shakespeare Theatre Company Literary Manager Drew Lichtenberg with input from the STC Artistic Department and Literary Circle. What a fine way to increase the range of voices considered part of the STC canon.

One personal note, as I work on this article, I am sitting in a coffee shop near Fairfax’s Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology, with student demographics considered Northern Virginia’s best and brightest students. What reaction would a reading of Peerless elicit from that student body, so many of whom likely expect to be accepted at an Ivy League school?

The next scheduled ReDiscovery reading is Venus by Suzan-Lori Parks on Monday, January 7 at 7:30 p.m. For more information on Venus and the full 2018-19 season of ReDiscovery readings, visit the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s website.