'Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!' premieres on Steppenwolf's virtual stage

Before co-starring in Steppenwolf Theatre Company's virtual premiere of "Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!," Celeste M. Cooper's acting credits included productions at Steppenwolf, Court, Goodman and Eclipse theaters among others. But after appearing in Vivian J.O. Barnes' two-hander (loosely based on Meghan Markle and the British royal family), Cooper can add lighting technician, set decorator, makeup artist and stage crew to her resume.

To comply with coronavirus precautions, filming took place remotely at each of the actors' homes, requiring Cooper and co-star Sydney Charles to take on additional tasks. Because the characters spend the play together in the same room, lighting, sound, props, camera angles and more from each film location had to match so the footage could be edited to create the illusion that Cooper and Charles were together on stage.

That required they become proficient at other theater arts.

Celeste M. Cooper plays a young woman preparing to marry into the royal family in "Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!" Courtesy of Juli Del Prete

"I was all in and then it became daunting," said Cooper, who embraced the challenge. "I didn't realize how much equipment would be in my space. Most of my apartment was the set."

She recalled a moment when a bulb went out in one of the special lights used for filming. She had to swap in the only replacement bulb, which was a delicate operation. For Cooper, changing it felt like deactivating a bomb.

But the precision, pains and perseverance of the artists paid off in surprising ways for playwright Barnes. That much was clear after she reviewed an early virtual version of the play, which unfolds as a conversation between a duchess (Charles) and a young woman (Cooper) preparing to marry into the royal family.

"It took my breath away to see it," Barnes said.

She said she was grateful for the whole team, including creative director Joel Moorman, photography director and video editor Lowell Thomas and director Weyni Mengesha.

"Everyone came in with this attitude of 'we will make this work,'" she said.

Sydney Charles plays a duchess in Steppenwolf's "Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!" Courtesy of Joel Maisonet

"Celeste and Sydney, every day we were in awe of them," said Barnes, adding she was "blown away by everyone's generosity."

Collaboration was key, Moorman said. He described Barnes as a great partner/artist and praised Mengesha, the stage managers and the sound, lighting and video experts who "MacGyvered solutions" to every problem.

"There was such a desire to create on the part of the artists and on us to do whatever we could to make that as painless as possible so the actors could focus on their performance," said Moorman, who began each day of filming holding his breath and hoping the internet signal didn't drop.

"If we've done our job well, no one will know this was a huge technological feat," he said. "We've worked harder and thought more about it and tapped new skill sets ... to land what we thought the script called for: to make sure two amazing actors were in the same room together."

"The play sneaks up on you," Barnes said. "You realize maybe you're not in the world you thought you were in."

Playwright Vivian J.O. Barnes' play "Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!" is loosely inspired by Meghan Markle's experience as a royal. Courtesy of Rigel Harris

Barnes never intended "Duchess!" to chronicle Markle's experience when she began writing the play in 2018. Rather she intended to write about two Black women "trying to figure out how to survive in this world, within this institution that's not built for them."

Cooper says personal experience has taught her that some institutions claim to embrace diversity but don't really want to hear her voice.

"That's what I feel this play is speaking to," she said, adding that in the play, Charles' duchess tries to teach Cooper's character how to refrain from stirring things up.

Cooper herself has experienced people trying to silence her. She hopes the play encourages and challenges people "to stand up for themselves, to not allow society or social media to dictate who or what they should be."

"This show definitely speaks to being your authentic self," she said, adding that at the end of the day, "all you got is you."

• • •

"Duchess! Duchess! Duchess!"

When: Begins streaming Wednesday, March 10

Where: Streaming at

Tickets: Memberships to Steppenwolf Now, the theater's six-play virtual season, are $75 and $50 for students, teachers, essential workers and artists. (312) 335-1650 or

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