Director Kathleen Akerley always tries to stay open-minded.
Case in point: She’s not a superstitious person, but before staging “Voodoo Macbeth” for American Century Theater, she asked her actors how they felt about the “Macbeth” curse. Some in the theater world refuse to say the name of Shakespeare’s great tragedy — they usually refer to it as “the Scottish play” — while others find the fixation kind of silly. So, at their first meeting, the cast went around the table and divulged where they fell on the superstition spectrum.
“I want us to be respectful of whoever is the most,” Akerley says she told the actors. “You know, let’s make sure we’re not making fun of somebody.”
As it turned out, there was a wide range of superstitiousness.
“So, I said, ‘Okay, thank you for sharing,’ ” she recalls. “I’m here to guarantee your safety.”
She then said the M-word, ensuring she would be the lightning rod for any unseen evil. Not two weeks later, she was hobbling around rehearsals in a cast after shattering her kneecap.
But Akerley’s all-embracing attitude has proved lucky when remounting Orson Welles’s 1936 take on Shakespeare, the famously progressive “Voodoo Macbeth.” Welles’s drumming-infused play was set on an island resembling Haiti, the title character’s actions were dictated by a mysterious black magic, and, most buzzworthy for the time period, the entire cast was black.
The play’s controversial nature is exactly what makes it so difficult to stage now.
“The things that were so explosive about it are not explosive anymore,” Akerley says.
When artistic director Jack Marshall approached Akerley about directing a fresh version, she agreed, knowing she would have to update it with a twist.
Some thought she should focus on women — a trivial comparison, she thought — while the plight of Arab Americans briefly flitted through her mind. But neither option seemed quite right.
“I think what [Welles] did was made his audience look more closely at a subset that was otherwise viewed as not fully human,” Akerley says. “And so [a challenge was] finding what is today’s subset that just gets dismissed as, ‘We don’t have to listen to you.’ ”
Ultimately, she decided to look at conservative Christians. In her words: “The group that got put on the hook when President Obama said they cling to their guns and religion.”
Even as a pro-Obama liberal, Akerley saw that statement as wildly unfair.
“I detest generalizations more than most things,” she says. “I myself am often making arguments in defense of viewpoints that I don’t share, because I’m trying to get people to unpack carefully what it is about that person’s viewpoint they really mind and not to tack on needless insults and criticisms just to make it seem more effective.”
Akerley’s vision is set in the near future and follows a group of U.S. Marines stationed in Scotland. A schism forms as half the men, all practicing Christians, begin to embrace local shamanistic practices that include falling into trances and self-mortification. The all-male cast — Lady M turns out to be one of Macbeth’s sergeants — and the intense fight sequences give the play a muscularity juxtaposed with prayer and religious singing.
As Marshall puts it, Akerley has a gift for portraying “testosterone run amok.”
But will her choice of subjects sway occasionally opinionated Washingtonians? Only time will tell. In the meantime, just don’t tell Akerley to break a leg.
“I’m still not superstitious,” she says.
Through April 13. Gunston Arts Center, 2700 South Lang St., Arlington. 703-998-4555. www.americancentury.org. $35-$40; pay-what-you-can on Wednesday.