When Sydney Charles and Celeste Cooper watched Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, they reacted similarly to many other viewers: They were struck by Markle’s honesty about both her mental health struggles and her allegations of racism within the British royal family.
But for Charles and Cooper, watching the interview also felt uncanny: Just a few months previously, the pair had performed in a play — “Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!” which was written by Vivian J.O. Barnes and is being streamed online by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company — that nearly simulated the sit-down. Charles and Cooper — both Black women — play a current and a soon-to-be duchess who meet for the first time to discuss the protocol of joining the royal family. They also confront the realities of racism and sexism within the institution.
After they watched such a similar conversation play out between Winfrey and Markle, the play they performed — which Barnes wrote in 2018 — felt prophetic, the actors said.
“It was wild,” Charles said. “I thought: ‘What? This is witchcraft!'”
In the play — which debuted online only three days after the interview — Charles, who plays the Duchess, sits down with Cooper, the Soon-to-be Duchess, as their characters are identified, ostensibly to go over “the rules” that will accompany her new public role: how and when to sit, when to speak, what to say and, eventually, how to cope with the pressures of royal life.
The incoming duchess finds the expectations exasperating from the start and wrongly assumes that her predecessor will offer a sense of sisterhood and a place of refuge where both can drop their guards. But the Duchess largely accepts the restrictions that bind her, until the Soon-to-be Duchess — with her exhortations to “burn it down” — inspires the Duchess to undertake a dramatic, and subversive, act of resistance.
Barnes, the playwright, heard echoes of that spirit of resistance in how Markle spoke out against the monarchy.
“The play starts out very much exactly how you think it’s going to go, in terms of ‘we’re doing princess lessons,’ and then it pretty quickly takes a hard right,” she said. “There are similarities, or metaphorical resonances, between our world and the heightened world of the play.”
The resonances, Barnes said, emerge in the racist and sexist discrimination and stereotyping that Black women face — particularly within predominantly white institutions like the British monarchy, which they are expected to help uphold while also remaining out of view, she said. In her conversation with Winfrey, Markle pulled the curtain back on that reality, discussing how she was barely allowed to leave Kensington Palace for months after she was accused of being overexposed in the media.
“By being that visible, as that person … you sort of actually become invisible, in many ways, because people aren’t actually taking into account who you are — they’re only seeing you for the symbolism that you represent,” Barnes said of Markle.
Charles and Cooper drew on their own lived experiences in “Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!” making the struggles they portrayed in the play feel personal.
“It speaks to things I’ve heard about Meghan Markle, as well as my experiences being a Black woman in America being in white spaces and just having to possibly shrink myself,” Cooper said.
Charles likened her role as the Duchess to her experience working in corporate America, which she said she left in 2016 because of the discrimination she and other Black women experienced.
“You’re expected to represent the entire Black woman conglomerate, and that involves speaking up when you’re supposed to, being sassy when…