In 2018, Oskar Eustis, who runs the Public Theater, the place I counsel Shakespeare productions, launched me to the theater director Kenny Leon. He hoped to influence Kenny to direct one thing for Shakespeare within the Park, and requested me to speak with him. I’m a professor with no performing or directing expertise, however I’m good at slicing four-hour performs all the way down to measurement, can clarify to actors the distinction between thee and you, and have written extensively about Shakespeare’s world. And after a decade or so of advising Royal Shakespeare Firm and Public Theater productions, I might inform fairly rapidly which administrators have been nice at staging Shakespeare; it seems surprisingly few.
Kenny was, like me, in his mid-60s. I’m a white man from Brooklyn; he’s a Black man from the South. I knew him solely by repute: a Tony Award–successful director who had acted, run a few theater firms, and executed numerous work on tv and Broadway, a lot of it illuminating Black life in America. We talked about which of Shakespeare’s performs he may discover interesting and settled on A lot Ado About Nothing, a darkish comedy that would accommodate an African American forged and be set in modern Georgia (it helped that the play’s locale, Messina, shared a reputation with a city not removed from Atlanta). After solely a few days of rehearsals, I might see that Kenny had an unequalled present for getting on the essence of Shakespeare. His manufacturing was thrilling. Most administrators don’t like having a scholar within the room, however Kenny made clear that he loved having me round. And I used to be studying quite a bit in regards to the play that would by no means be picked up from books.
After that run, I noticed every thing Kenny directed on Broadway—A Soldier’s Play, Topdog/ Underdog, Ohio State Murders—all the time questioning if he’d return to Shakespeare. So I used to be thrilled in 2021 when he received in contact and stated he was curious about directing Hamlet for a Shakespeare within the Park manufacturing. We went to work determining easy methods to handle a reduce that may enable him to, as Shakespeare put it, present “the very age and physique of the time his kind and strain.” The problem of constructing a play first staged in Elizabethan London converse to modern Individuals was daunting. Watching Kenny direct over the previous six weeks, surmounting this problem, has been among the many most gratifying experiences in my profession as a Shakespearean. As costume rehearsal approached, I requested Kenny if we might chat whereas he grabbed a fast dinner in Manhattan’s theater district.
This interview has been condensed and edited for readability.
James Shapiro: I simply discovered an e mail from you, from February 2021, a month after the assault on the Capitol. And also you wrote, “I’m studying Hamlet over breakfast. I do need to do it with an African American forged. Does it make sense to discover this story in a return to the South?” So that you’ve been fascinated by this play for 2 years now.
Kenny Leon: Sure. And we certainly set it in Atlanta a yr after the beginning of the pandemic, a little bit bit after George Floyd’s homicide and the racial reawakening. Once we spoke, I had additionally been instructing courses just about. And I appeared into the eyes of the younger folks, and I noticed the worry in them. I noticed disappointment in them about the place our nation was, the place it was going by way of politics, faith and nearly every thing. I noticed that this is a chance to take a look at Hamlet by the lens of these college students. Can I set this play in 2020, in Atlanta, Georgia, honoring every thing that Shakespeare has on the web page, solely utilizing his phrases, solely substituting unique songs which are extra modern however nothing else? And as I went by that course of, I received increasingly more excited.
Shapiro: And that meant focusing the play on sure of its themes?
Leon: We’re specializing in the relationships. We’re specializing in the home a part of the play. We’re not specializing in the political, the navy a part of the play. As a result of whenever you do away with our establishments, our armies and navies, and also you do away with presidents and governors, you’re left with folks. Folks. Folks make up the navy. Folks make up the federal government. Folks. So we focus it down on these folks. Now, a few of these folks could also be in positions of energy; some might not be not in positions of energy. However it is a Hamlet that’s, at coronary heart, about folks.
Shapiro: There are all the time going to be those that are purists. A play referred to as Hamlet was staged when Shakespeare got here to London within the late 1580s. It wasn’t his Hamlet; it was anyone else’s. I’m positive some Elizabethan purist who got here to see Shakespeare’s Hamlet in 1600 walked out of the Globe Theatre saying, “I can’t imagine he messed with my favourite play. He made all these modifications. How dare he tamper with it in that manner?” I’m positive there are going to be individuals who say that about each Hamlet manufacturing they see, yours as effectively.
Leon: I feel Shakespeare left a ravishing street map. I haven’t betrayed his street map. So, , he says, there’s a funeral. He says Hamlet’s father is useless. Set it in Atlanta, Georgia, so the funeral’s in southwest Atlanta. These folks would sing on the funeral. In order persons are strolling into the Delacorte [the Central Park theater where Shakespeare in the Park is staged] it’s like, a funeral is in progress. I all the time wished Solea Pfeiffer to be Ophelia.
Shapiro: Due to her voice?
Leon: Due to her voice, and due to her look. It was essential to me to have Hamlet’s aspect of the household be Black and Polonius’s aspect of the household be white or blended race. That was essential, to simply get that race dynamic in there. And I knew I wanted an Ophelia who might sing, as a result of I do know she has these two or three songs in there. And in different productions, I feel folks get bored or irritated by these songs. So I wished to determine that Ophelia had a ravishing voice, nearly like she’s a singer. And then you definitely fall in love together with her, and you’re feeling that love for her early on. So then after we lose her, it means one thing. I wished to offer the ladies within the play a little bit extra seen power than previously. So you might have Lorraine Toussaint as Gertrude, enjoying it like Michelle Obama. And you’ve got Solea, who has a ravishing singing voice. It provides them a little bit extra power and offers them a little bit chunk to push again on the lads.
Shapiro: You recognize, there’s anyone who’s not credited within the playbill who figured in numerous moments, essential moments, in your rehearsals: Leroy. I hoped you may give him some credit score right here.
Leon: Yeah, I’ve a time period, I launched it … My organic father, Leroy, died about three years in the past, and he’s a man who by no means left Tallahassee, Florida, till a yr earlier than he handed. You recognize, he’s an actual primary man. He’s the kind of man that may go right into a New York restaurant and say, “The place the meals at, boy? The place’s the meals?” So I launched that to the actors early on and stated, “I need a play that Leroy might perceive. Somebody who’s by no means been to a play, somebody who’s an Everyman, they usually need to be fed the issues that theater has to supply.” We simply must, such as you stated, get to Shakespeare and lose the Shakespearean. So every time I shout out the phrase Leroy! in rehearsals, which means I can’t perceive what you’re speaking about; I don’t know what you imply. So we now have to get clear, make it clear for Leroy. So it is a Shakespeare that we’re attempting to clarify for Leroy, a rustic man who grew up in Tallahassee, Florida, with outside plumbing.
Shapiro: You recognize, at one level, I heard you ask the actors to “let the tradition in.” What did you imply by that?
Leon: I’m all the time reminded of one thing August Wilson taught me: It’s that you must be particular with the story you’re telling, particularly culturally. And the extra particular you’re with the folks within the play—who they’re, the place they arrive from, what they eat, how they do their hair, what music they take heed to—the extra particular you’re, the higher alternative you might have of claiming one thing highly effective and impactful and common for everyone that involves the Delacorte. In order that’s what it’s about. To me, it’s not about reaching Black folks or white folks or intellectuals or nonintellectuals or theater of us. It’s about reaching human beings, reaching folks. And I feel by making this particular to Atlanta, Georgia, with out altering the phrases—making the music particular, making the meals particular, making their hair particular—we will do this.
Shapiro: John Douglas Thompson, who performs Claudius, informed me that he was actually struck by how this manufacturing is about neighborhood reasonably than Hamlet as a person. Does that resonate with you?
Leon: Effectively that’s additionally due to the reduce that you simply helped me with. It centered on the neighborhood, the relationships, the folks. So when you give attention to the folks and also you carve round that, it actually helps—for one factor, as a result of there’s no manner a contemporary viewers goes to take a seat for a five-hour manufacturing.
Shapiro: Effectively, I hope not, though typically they’re compelled to. Now, you informed me what you wanted, and I used to be the butcher and blissful to provide the reduce you wanted. It was simple since you determined that every one this Polish, English, Norwegian, Danish stuff—the European geopolitical elements of the play—didn’t match the Atlanta story. And as soon as that was gone, we received it down nearer to 2 and a half hours than four-hours plus. And once more, it’s all Shakespeare’s language—apart from the songs, which, as in Shakespeare’s day, together with in Macbeth and Twelfth Night time, may very well be swapped out for newer ones. It appears to me that you simply’ve been ready to herald extra of a cultural story because of this. For instance, the Black neighborhood’s expertise of mourning, of burial, of responding to the useless, of ancestors and their presence in a single’s life is especially hanging, and was a revelation for me with my Brooklyn, white, Jewish upbringing. Are you able to discuss in regards to the Ghost a little bit bit within the context of that?
Leon: The Ghost? Yeah. The Ghost is definitely very acquainted to my tradition. I grew up Black, southern, Christian, however, , my tradition has a unique relationship with the non secular world. Even should you go to see horror motion pictures we’ve received a unique sense of horror motion pictures. We don’t journey down, operating away from the monster. Man, we hold going. Or we’re not going to depart the lady within the automobile, if we predict there’s a chance of a ghost exhibiting up. In the event you return to the Caribbean and the African traditions, you could find our relationship to the useless. When Hamlet sees the Ghost, we don’t know if he really sees it or if the ghost is in him or the ghost is a part of him. However we do know that he believes that he’s seeing a ghost. And in some unspecified time in the future, the Ghost possesses him bodily. And I feel we pull that off. I feel we did a reasonably good job of that. However that’s additionally a culturally particular aspect that we’re bringing to the present.
Shapiro: A part of that specificity comes by in your alternative of Hamlet, Ato Blankson-Wooden. I’m simply curious, is Ato the Hamlet that was in your head whenever you forged him?
Leon: You recognize, once I first met Ato—I bumped into him final summer season—I used to be consulting on a venture that he and a few younger folks have been doing about racial awakening, and he took that “to be or to not be” speech, and he customized it and made it acceptable for what younger Black males have been going by in America after George Floyd’s loss of life. And so I knew that was the precise high quality for our Hamlet. And I type of felt he might ship that. And now, after working with him, I feel it’s a generational efficiency. Nobody has fairly discovered the love in that character like Ato has. Nobody has discovered the scary half. One of many issues we wished to discover was that concept and definition of what psychological well being is in our lives at this time. And he’s embraced that. It’s a scary emotional journey that he’s taking us by. And I simply suppose that it’s a efficiency of a lifetime. And I couldn’t ask for a greater defining second for that character.
Shapiro: You recognize, it’s additionally a defining second for Hamlet, all these years after its creation, that it might really feel so supposed for what he does with it, that there’s no stress between the phrases he’s saying and the character he’s bringing to the position.
Leon: There was one factor Ato requested me after we first began rehearsing: He stated, “Can I deliver all of me into this Hamlet?” I stated, “Sure.” And I really feel that it’s a three-dimensional character with a soul and a spirit and a thoughts and a future. It really appears like a brand-new play. It appears like a personality I’ve by no means met earlier than.