This past summer, Ebony Chuukwu ’16 starred as the title character in a modern take on “The Duchess of Malfi” by John Webster. Jordan Friend, an undergraduate at Ithaca College, and Susannah Clark directed the play. Chuukwu and Friend were pals from high school and Friend reached out to her last year, asking if she would like to play the part of the Duchess.
“[It] was kind of shocking; I’ve never done anything like that before,” Chuukwu said.
She felt it was a great opportunity to act with a few of her friends from home. They practiced every day, working one-on-one on scenes and staging.
“[Friend] took a lot of time to go over the show and [help us to] understand what the wording meant and what the characters represented,” she said.
“The Duchess of Malfi” takes place in Malfi, Italy and is the story of a duchess who, after the death of her husband and the end of an arranged marriage, chooses to follow true love, despite being forbidden from re-marrying. The five-act play is full of family issues, love, deceit and blood. The work ends dramatically, with two characters stabbing each other to death.
This production of “The Duchess of Malfi” was unique in its staging; Friend chose to use his parents’ Chevy Chase home in Maryland as his venue. The play took place in several different rooms of the home as well as outside, and was experimental in its use of 21st century costuming, although it remained faithful to the work by keeping to the original text. The show was performed three times, two evening shows and one matinee, with around 30 people in the audience for each.
The actors interacted with the audience by transporting them from room to room for different scenes.
“There was one scene where we were in Malfi, they had to go to Rome, so … a train noise [is heard] and you see conductors [coming] in, saying ‘Come get your tickets to Rome!’ and they pass out tickets and we go into a different room,” Chuukwu said. “[Friend] gave us a lot of freedom to create how we think the scene should go, which was pretty cool.”
This was one of Chuukwu’s first opportunities to work with a director in creating scenes. It allowed Friend to mold the characters he wanted, while allowing the actors to make them their own.
“I always enjoy doing characters that are very out of my range, and this character was probably one of the biggest characters that I had a challenge with, and that I thought was also a very conflicted character … A lot of going back and forth and dealing with a lot of emotions, which I thought was very interesting for myself,” Chuukwu said.
Chuukwu has been involved in other productions, including the Neverland Players at Grinnell.
“Now I’m trying to take as many courses as possible on acting, and just keep myself going,” she said.