Cincinnati Shakespeare Company Brings 'The Living Dead' to Life Just in Time for Halloween

The local production is inspired by the 1968 zombie film, 'Night of the Living Dead.'

click to enlarge Darnell Pierre Benjamin plays Ben in Cincinnati Shakespeare Company's production of The Living Dead. - Photo: Provided by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company
Photo: Provided by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company
Darnell Pierre Benjamin plays Ben in Cincinnati Shakespeare Company's production of The Living Dead.

Cincinnati Shakespeare Company has a tradition of scary shows in October – typically bloody classics by Shakespeare. But this year it’s the world premiere of The Living Dead, inspired by the original zombie film, Night of the Living Dead (1968).

One of the theater company’s board members recently asked artistic director Brian Phillips, “How is Night of the Living Dead a classic?” But Phillips tells CityBeat that Cincy Shakes already had staged versions of films from the same era — Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1968), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Network (1976). It also gave audiences the chills with a creepy rendition of George Orwell’s 1984 for the 2018 Halloween season.

“Horror is such a fantastic genre to look at our contemporary fears and have a dialogue about what we’re really scared of,” Phillips says. “I thought Night of the Living Dead could be a starting point, as we’re dealing with COVID and the uncertainty around that. You could go ahead and creatively worry about the actual side effects of what COVID is doing to us. Or to get on the other side of the argument, what will the vaccines do to you? You could sort of use the film’s zombie apocalypse as a lens through which to discuss uncertainty and fear.”

But where to find a script? Prior to the pandemic, Cincy Shakes was exploring ways to connect more broadly with the community. Commissioning new play projects “to create the next classical canon to work in conjunction with the existing classical canon” was what Phillips says he’d hoped for. Seed funding from the McElroy family enabled him to commission and workshop a series of new plays over a five-year period (podcaster Travis McElroy of My Brother, My Brother and Me fame worked at Cincy Shakes in the past and subsequently served as a board member).

Several respected writers are now at work on shows. Lauren Gunderson, one of America’s most produced playwrights, is crafting a show about Hamlet’s Ophelia. Kate Hamill, whose stage adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was a hit for the company, is working on a piece derived from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.

Phillips was already at work on a project with local playwright Isaiah Reaves, whose script I Will Not Be Moved received its world premiere at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati earlier this year. He says he reached out to ask Reaves if he knew the film Night of the Living Dead. In fact, the 24-year-old NKU grad is a huge fan.

“I grew up watching it over and over again on DVD,” Reaves tells CityBeat. “I love old movies because of my grandmother. I first saw Night of the Living Dead when I was six years old. I found it in a dollar DVD bin at Walmart. I asked her if she remembered it, and she bought it for me. We would watch it together at her house.”

Reaves remembers responding to the film because it was the first time that he saw a Black hero in a horror movie. George Romero, who created the franchise that inspired today’s zombie tales, had cast Duane Jones, a Black actor, in the leading role of Ben.

“I didn’t get the full historical impact of that when I was six,” Reaves says. “But I’ve loved that movie forever. When I learned that Brian wanted me to work on this new adaptation I was like, ‘Wow, I’ve been preparing for this my whole life and didn’t know it.’”

As part of his research for the new script, Reaves found the original screenplay.

“Romero did not intend for Ben to be a Black character. He cast Duane Jones as the lead because he was the best actor for the role,” Reaves says.

The film arrived the same year as Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and a lot of social upheaval.

“In some ways, it mirrored a lot of what is happening today,” Reaves says.

“Isaiah has written a brand-new play inspired by The Night of the Living Dead. It is not a beat-by-beat adaptation of the film,” Phillips says. “It will be familiar: people trapped in a farmhouse. But what happens inside that house — who’s the focus of the story, how it ends — is all very different. That’s part of what’s exciting. The source material is a launch pad, but a very new vision of the story.”

The production is “a riff on the film and its themes while making it relevant to the moment, imbuing it with some very contemporary ideas and concepts,” Reaves says. “It completely goes in a different direction than the film, even though we have the same dramatic thrust and the same narrative set-up.” He says anyone familiar with the movie will recognize the beginning moments, “but then we go in a radically new direction. Race does end up becoming really central. It is a tribute and an homage to the film. But it goes in a new creative direction.”

Thanks to the commissioning project, Cincy Shakes’ presentation of new works by women and BIPOC playwrights will be increasingly evident in coming seasons, Phillips says.

“I think I’m the first Black living playwright to be produced at Cincy Shakes,” Reaves says. “This can engage a lot of younger people who have not come to the theater before. A lot of them have not seen the film, and this will serve as an introduction to go on that journey. A lot of people across generations will find something to hold onto in this play.”

Phillips is directing Reaves’ script, and the role of Ben will be played by Darnell Pierre Benjamin, a prolific Cincinnati theater artist (he directed Lynn Nottage’s Sweat currently onstage at Ensemble Theatre). Scenic designs by designer Samantha Reno will provide the show’s creepy atmosphere.

A streamlined one-hour version of Reaves’ play will be broadcast 8-9 p.m. Oct. 31 on 91.7 WVXU-FM.

Cincinnati Shakespeare Company will present the world premiere of The Living Dead Oct. 14-29 at the Otto M. Budig Theatre, 1195 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine. Info: cincyshakes.com.

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