How Black Women-Led Outdoor Productions of Shakespeare Took NYC by Storm This Summer
Summer in New York City means the return of outdoor theatre. This year, audiences can see two outdoor Shakespeare productions led by Black women—a rare if not historically absent trend on the stage.
The first to premiere is the Public Theatre’s production of Richard III, led by actress-playwright Danai Gurira (of Black Panther fame). It’s part of the Public’s annual “Free Shakespeare in the Park” series at The Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, and Richard III is running through July 21.
The second Bard show to premiere is the Classical Theatre of Harlem’s production of Twelfth Night, led by actress Kara Young (a recent Tony nominee for Clyde’s). It’s part of Classical Theatre of Harlem’s own tradition of presenting classical works at the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater at Marcus Garvey Park, and Twelfth Night is running through July 29.
The directors of these productions, Robert O’Hara for Richard III and Carl Cofield for Twelfth Night, both started at the Columbia University School of the Arts, and have gone onto successful careers in both theatre and academia. O’Hara is the playwright of works such as Insurrection: Holding History, Bootycandy, and Barbecue, and is a recent Tony nominee for his direction of Broadway’s Slave Play. Cofield is the chair of the NYU Grad Acting program, as well as the associate artistic director of the Classical Theatre of Harlem.
Theatrely spoke to both auteurs over Zoom about directing Black productions of Shakespeare, the special resonance of the Bard’s words as spoken by Black actors, and the unique opportunities presented by outdoor theatre.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get involved in your production, and what drew you to directing your show?
Carl Cofield: When we did season planning, we definitely wanted to introduce the Harlem community to something joyous, something fun. I think everybody coming out of COVIDcould use a little fun. For us, Twelfth Night was something that we thought could speak to the community, engage the community on many different levels, and just bring us back, hopefully to enjoy a moment of theatre together and really celebrate Harlem.
Robert O’Hara: I have a long history with the Public Theater. It was the first place I interned as a graduate student in the mid-to-late nineties, and I’ve done several productions with them. So when Oscar Eustis asked me to consider doing a Shakespeare in the Park, it had always been a dream of mine. I also immediately thought to myself, “I want to work with Danai Gurira.” I had that completely opposite thought pattern as Carl. I was like, “What I don’t want to do is do something nice and sweet and happy and joyous,” because I tend to like the tragedies and the dark Shakespeare plays. Also, I wanted to work with Danai on something a little bit meaty in that she has a very charismatic persona, and I wanted to see what her playing a villain would feel like.
It’s fascinating that you both had the opposite reaction on whether to do comedy or tragedy. How do you think that those two two genres are speaking to what audiences are looking for in theatre right now?
Cofield: Well, I think it’s a blessing right now to have two productions like that to come from us. To piggyback on what Robert was saying, I’ve wanted to work with Kara Young forever. I think this is a beautiful aligning of the planets, where audiences can come and see Robert’s wonderful take on this tragedy, and then come up and see something completely different. To see these two beautiful women lead these companies, and tell these stories in unique but possibly similar ways—I would just say it’s an exciting time to be an audience member in New York City.
O’Hara: I second Carl, seeing particularly Black women able to speak in various communities, and tell various stories, is absolutely necessary. So I don’t think it’s very odd at all for directors to have different takes and different interests. I think allowing Black women to embrace their Blackness in Shakespeare is very exciting to have that in New York at this moment.
The complexities of both of your shows hit upon other elements of identity as well, including gender expression in Twelfth Night and disability in Richard III. How did you go about tackling identity in your productions?
O’Hara: The moment I said I wanted to do work with Danai and Richard III was the decision that we would not be performing disability. In fact, there is no world “disability” in Richard III, they call him “deformed,” which has a completely different tone and meaning. Instantly, of course, there is backlash because of the history of white men for centuries wiping their ass, essentially, with Richard: they’re putting a hump on their back, or tying their hand, or sliding their feet across the floor. So I wanted to open up the conversation about why it is that we’re so in demand that the character Richard III be played by a disabled actor or be disabled. Any of these characters can be played by a disabled actress. So that’s the way we approached it. I wanted to surround Richard and Danai with as large a diverse group of people as possible. We began to realize that Richard is actually suffering from the projections of other people around him. If you have a diverse community, then Richard is no different than anyone else. Richard has an interior hatred of himself because of how he is internalizing the projections of others. A Black woman in particular has to deal with projections of others all the time and have to negotiate that. So we have a very particular production here in which the disability of Richard, his otherness, really is internalized and projected. So I’m opening up the conversation. We have several disabled actors in our show, and I believe that it is actually quite exciting just to open up the idea of where disability lives inside Richard III.
Cofield: For us, it’s an exciting opportunity when I look at the magical place that Illyria is. It’s a place where you can excel if you are versed in two currencies: wit and music. For our company, having a room full of beautiful Black and Brown people tell this story and tap into it is something truly special. The show takes on a new meaning, when you see a beautiful Black woman enter the space and say, “Where am I?,” I think that’s what drew me most to this part, because historically Black people have done the most with the least. When Viola washes up, she has nothing but her wit, intelligence, charisma, and sensibilities, and she's able to navigate, excel, and prosper in a world. I think as a Black theatre artist, there are a lot of times in those positions where we’re handed a flashlight, a cardboard box, and some scotch tape, and they say, “make theatre,” and somehow we do.
O’Hara: That’s what Shakespeare allows you to do. It allows you to create a world. Many of these worlds we’ve seen over the centuries are inhabited by white folks and subscribe to white behavior. When you enter into this space of the Black and Brown body, it changes the molecules of the space. Danai is a fully Black person in this part. When you have a Black woman say a line such as, “since I cannot prove a lover… I am determined to prove a villain,” that speaks to a whole history of how we have actually put Black women into the role of villain. All of these layers of history are inside that passage. It is not the same if a white man says it; we have tons and tons of examples of white men being villains.
Some Black audiences and artists have historically felt very conflicted about Shakespeare. In 1964, James Baldwin wrote the essay “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare” to track his progress from detesting the Bard to appreciating him. In 1996, August Wilson delivered the speech “The Ground on Which I Stand,” which criticized colorblind casting practices often found in Shakespeare productions of the time. What would you say to Black audience members who, in 2022, are still skeptical about Shakespeare or skeptical about seeing Black productions of his work?
Cofield: I would say, “Come!”
O’Hara: I would say: “You don’t have to come.” You can come or you don’t have to come, but we’re not a monolith. There’s a lot of shit I hate, that I don’t want to see, you know? Black people are not some group of people that have to be spoken to as if, “you all have to like the same thing.” No! Come, and try something new or interesting. You may change your mind. Or don’t come! Go see whoever you want to see, that’s on you. I don’t live my life expecting Black people to reward me for all my choices. I’m all about you making your decisions and if you do come, enjoy yourself. If not, there’s plenty of things to do. There’s plenty of things to do in Central Park in the summer. You do not have to come to the Delacorte.
Cofield: I couldn’t agree more with Robert… I hope it stimulates conversation, but I’m not going to alter or change what I believe in. I believe in stories, and telling stories enriches all of us. I invite you to get on the love train, but if you don’t want to get on the love train, the love train leaves at 11:00 and it’s going to leave whether you [are] on it, or not.
O’Hara: Exactly! Exactly.
Both of these productions are taking place in outdoor theatres. How does performing outside enhance elements of the show, or maybe provide challenges you wouldn’t expect?
Cofield: I think performing outdoors enhances the production because you’re getting the true taste of New York. I’ve been fortunate enough to work in an outdoor space, at Classical Theatre of Harlem, for the past seven years. There are people who live in our space. Let’s underline that: there are people who live in our space. The beauty of that is they get to see arts also, and their opinion is just as valid as the person who’s willing to pay $300 to see the hottest Broadway show. Two years ago, I did The Bacchae. I’ve had conversations with a gentleman who lives in the space, and a lot of times we can overlook or undervalue those peoples’ opinions. But this brother said, “You know, when Dionysus comes down, what he should do is the…” and I’m like, “Yes, yes, tell me more about it!” To me, that is the beauty of this outdoor space. We have politicians seated next to doctors, seated next to people who are less fortunate. I really love that both the Public and the Classical Theatre of Harlem embrace this idea that arts are for everyone. So as opposed to looking at the challenges that performing outdoors present, I think of the opportunity.
O’Hara: I agree. I think that when you’re performing or producing a show outside, then that is part of the performance. Our first preview was canceled because of rain. Our second preview was shut down in the middle of Act 2 because of rain. That becomes a part of the show. Both of these venues are incredibly beautiful. Carl is right that it gives you a sense of community that I don’t think we have very much. I mean, you certainly don’t get a sense of community by paying $300 to see a Broadway show. You know what that community is, and you’re supposed to regulate yourself and your behavior to that community. Here, there is a sort of an openness. People come as they are. I have never understood this idea of dressing up on a Wednesday night to go sit in the dark. Seeing people just coming out the way they woke up or the way they walk through life is so exciting to me, especially watching outdoor theatre.