A professional table reading of Steve Bannon‘s apocryphal rap musical based on Shakespeare’s Coriolanus and set during the 1992 Los Angeles riots is available to watch via NowThis. The reading includes performances from comedian Rob Corddry, former Talk Soup host John Henson, Gary Anthony Williams, Nyima Funk, Jordan Black, Cedric Yarbrough and Daniele Gaither.
Bannon co-wrote his take on Coriolanus – re-titled The Thing I Am – with screenwriter Julia Jones in the late Nineties (Bannon worked as a producer and screenwriter in Hollywood before taking over Breitbart News and eventually becoming a senior advisor to President Trump). The New York Times reported the existence of the script last year, noting the particular attraction of the play for radicals on either side of the political spectrum. Coriolanus tells the story of a celebrated and popular Roman general who refuses to become a political candidate, invoking the anti-elite ire of the people. Coriolanus is banished from Rome and links up with his former enemies, the Volscians, to sack the city. While his mother stops him from going through with the plan, the Volscians ultimately murder him.
The table reading of The Thing I Am stars Williams as Coriolanus. The actor has appeared in several Shakespeare plays before and gives a full-throated reading of Bannon and Jones’ surreal mix of Shakespearean iambic pentameter and their own unique approximations of street slang. He roars at one point: “You sorry ass gangsta who puts the vote above/ Your own voice; know this: When two are up and none’s/ Superior, it’s a who ride to the finish … You who’d be less chicken-shit than Uncle Tom/ Who loves a noble life more than a long, who likes to/ Jump the body in the clouds with substance that/ Overcome a certain death-in-life/ Pluck out your simpering tongues.”
“He approaches the baby gangsta,” Henson says during the reading. “Puts his hand on his shoulder. Now addressing him. The kid gives him ‘stink eye.'”
Corddry, who plays several roles and also has some Shakespeare experience, delivers the reading’s final melodramatic moment after Coriolanus’ death: “We see the endless Vein of Gold streaking the ninth circle of hell, and catch a fleeting glimpse of the gangsters, massively built, bandanna’s around their heads, sweating profusely as they bear the body of Coriolanus underground. Then, all goes pitch black.”
Contemporary interpretations of Coriolanus have either leaned towards an fascistic glorification of the general, or a more Soviet-style bent towards the Roman people. Bannon’s The Thing I Am, however, falls somewhere in between, mirroring his personal brand of nationalistic populism. But because it’s also set in L.A. during the Rodney King riots, and centered around the warring Bloods and Crips, The Thing I Am is also fraught with Bannon’s problematic – to say the least – views on black life in inner cities.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Williams said of Bannon’s take on race: “I do think he was trying to understand race relations and take this overseer look of ‘Here’s what you’re not seeing.’ I think he thought he had a greater understanding than the people who were going through what they were going through. Now, whether he had the tools to do that or not is open to everyone’s interpretation. My answer would be no, spelled in pretty large letters, with a very curly font. … Again, I think Steve Bannon thought he had figured out black people, much in the way of Trump: ‘Carnage! Chicago is carnage! … American carnage! That I have the answer. That if you could listen to me, this can fix that.'”