Curator: Joseph Lamour
April's client and dear friend is doing ground breaking work...
In about two minutes, you may think to yourself, "I got to get to Philadelphia!"Why?
The woman in the above picture is British-African actress Zainab Jah. (It's pronounced "zay-nub jaw.")
Zainab is a spectacular human who has acted on TV and in movies, but currently she can be seen on stage at The Wilma Theater in Philadelphia.
She's performing in a groundbreaking production of Shakespeare's "Hamlet." *As* Hamlet.
She's the first black woman (on record) having ever played the conflicted Prince of Denmark, making history in the theater world. Shakespeare in a new light.
It's also probably the first time a black woman has played Hamlet in anything, anywhere in the professional theater world, but I could be wrong. (If I am, let me know, world!)
If her casting catches you a bit off guard, here are two things to realize:
1. Way back in Elizabethan times, when "Hamlet" first was performed at Globe Theater, male actors played the all the female roles.
"Lying for a living" was considered too scandalous for a woman to do.
Lines too unseemly to escape a woman's lips included:
That makes no sense.
I think we can all agree that was a silly law. The proof is in the receipts...
2. This minority, female-led production already has sold out almost every night of its run:
Wow. Better get a ticket now, if they aren't sold out already! The show ends May 2, 2015!
The play's success is in no small part thanks to Zainab and the rest of the women involved. This classic play is better for having them (and the rest of the cast) there.
And the crew is pretty great, too.
I'll say it again: This production looks so friggin' cool.
The sets incorporate graffiti by a street artist, CERA. Matt Saunders, the set designer, and Vasilija Zivanic, the costume designer, intended to create the feeling of a modern but also corrupt and Elizabethan society.
This helps illustrate the themes of vengeance, corruption, and decay that make "Hamlet" one of the most famous plays in existence.
Director Blanka Zizka cast Zainab for a great reason: "I knew I needed an actor who possessed great presence and could easily transform onstage," she said.
"I made a list of actors I would like to see working with me and it eventually became very clear to me that Zainab was going to be my Hamlet," Blanka explained.
So, just to be clear, it wasn't to be different.
She chose the best person for the job, who just so happened to be Zainab.
The director also says that in her production, "Hamlet is not going to change gender because he's played by a woman," and she expects that Zainab is "going to transform into Hamlet."
I think she has. But, you can be the judge, too:
Like This Post On Facebook Simply put, everything I'm looking at is coolness defined. Zainab rules the stage. As any prince should. So, go see this badass version of Hamlet!
"Hamlet" runs until May 2, 2015, at The Wilma Theater in Philadelphia.
""""One of the most mortifying moments I experienced in my theatrical career was when I was asked to bring the entirely African-American cast of a new musical we were workshopping, a new piece by an African-American librettist and composer, across the street to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and up into the plush boardroom so they could perform a song or two for the board of directors. I wanted to say something, but I didn't. For one thing, it would take an invaluable 45 minutes to an hour out of the creative team's limited time together. But... every year we had to do the same old song and dance for the board to remind them that yes, we did do new plays and musicals, so yes, it was sometimes a good idea to expose the board to new voices, to the vibrancy of an exciting work in progress.
You all know where this is going, don't you? I led the team in. The talent in that team! The writer/composer himself and the cast, lauded veterans of the stage and the most promising members of the next generation of acting giants. And there was our board. White, as white as can be, white white white white. And very comfortable. They'd just been served lunch, I believe. My theater spared no expense in pleasing our board and catering to their demands (oh my god, I'm feeling such rage right now! I'm pretty sure we had a staff member who was mostly dedicated to help our richest board members get house seats to shows on Broadway and the West End. But I digress...)
The only black face in the audience seated at the conference table? The only person of color? The head of our education department, of course. My heart went out to her.
The cast sang a song from the show. They did it. And they brought it. Because they were and are professionals. And the very pillars of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion reverberated down to the parking lot. It was breathtaking.
And I had just been complicit in the remaking of a scene for the millionth time: black bodies and voices entertaining white audiences, an institution raising money on the backs and voices of black bodies.
I was too mortified to apologize to our writer and to our cast, none of whom, I should add, expressed even an iota of discomfort. They were professionals, and they shone. And come to think of it, they'd probably all become accustomed to this scene. "It's just how theater works," they might have thought with a shrug of their shoulders. Or maybe they seethed inside, for the millionth time, when all they were trying to do is workshop a new musical.
Well, I apologize sincerely now to our writer and those actors. I wish I had had the courage to put my foot down. It is not how theater should work.
I quit the American theater on Valentine's Day 2016, so I've been out more than four years now. And honestly I don't plan to return, which is why I can write with such candor.
The heart of the problem, my friends, is with the non-profit structure, which is capitalism on steroids. Who are the bosses ultimately in an American institutional theater? The board of directors. Who are the board of directors? For the most part, those members of the community not with the strongest attachment to the art form but those with the deepest pockets. Often they're really not members of the community. They often just drop in. They are sometimes mere tourists.
It's no wonder that that board meeting was held in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The theater, like most American theaters, had built its board of directors on the old opera model: You get the richest folks together, offer them galas and house seats and receptions and private recitals and showings (for which artists often don't get paid extra, mind you), you pamper them and make them feel more special and entitled than they already do, and then they'll write you big checks to support the kind of art they like, the kind of art they can bring their kids and grandkids to. AND they--not the artists, not the community--get to hire the institution's leadership.
It is a rotten model. Rotten to the core. How can any artistic institution claim to be working for and in the community with that model?
It's got to be torn down. It's got to be reinvented. And I have no idea what the next model will be. I really don't. And no, honestly I don't think government is the solution frankly. Some of the most bloated, self-satisfied, decadent theater I've ever seen was in Germany, where it was almost fully government-funded. Lots of bells and whistles and provocations and completely soul-dead.
I see amazing and galvanizing lists of demands recently being made and posted by theater artists of color. These are vital demands. But they don't address the central issue. As long as the ultimate bosses of an artistic institution remain the community's deepest pockets, nothing will change. Nothing. You'll be putting band-aids on a gaping wound. Sorry, but it's true.
So please figure something else out. Maybe for a few years you just avoid the institutions. You've already started. In the pandemic, so many of you are making amazing art without an institution. Find those who truly adore your work and ask them to fund it. Screw non-profit. Form a corporation and value your art art-making as a resource that profits you, your viewers/audience and your community. I have no idea.
But please don't return to a new version of the old. After the virus, after he's out of office, after police reform and nationwide conversations about race, after, after, after, begin something new. I can't wait to see what it is!”
Words: Pier Carlo Talenti
Video: Griffin Matthews
April Yvette Thompson