After opening night, Tia James only got two chances to play Mark Antony before the start of the pandemic closed all theater, including PlayMakers Rep’s production of Julius Caesar, back in March 2020. But even by then, artistic director Vivienne Benesch already knew she wanted to see what James would do with Hamlet.
“She’s got an extraordinary gift with the language. She’s quick-witted; she’s vulnerable, but she’s also fierce,” Benesch says. “That complexity is what you need for Hamlet.”
The two raise the curtain on one of the most-talked-about shows of the year when Hamlet opens this week in Chapel Hill.
James was “completely surprised” when Caesar’s guest director Andrew Borba cast her as the loyal warrior three years ago. “That kind of broke a certain box that maybe I or the people or the industry had been putting myself in: ‘Oh, I can only play certain roles,’” she says.
Subsequent casting as Benedick in a summertime Boston production of Much Ado about Nothing added to the actor’s confidence in claiming roles previously saved for men. In that play, when Hero’s reputation is ruined by Benedick’s best friend Claudio, she needs a man to stand up for her. “But in our production, I go to him and say, ‘Actually, we are going to fight, and it’s going to be to the death. Your honor is at stake, and you’re going to be held accountable by me, as a Black woman.’ It not only meant solidarity with women, but that I don’t need a man to stand up for my honor or my friend’s honor. I will stand up.”
It’s Benesch’s first time directing Hamlet, and as she and her company explored the text, she realized that Hamlet’s part “has so much feminine, masculine, and everything in between in it already, that bringing a woman to the role really feels very natural.”
“It has just opened up the possibilities of the text more,” she continues. “We’ve had to do next to no twisting to make something work.”
The production cuts against cultural gatekeeping that reserves power—and stage time—for specific hierarchies involving gender, sexuality, and race. Hamlet here is a Black woman, the heir in the family of a Black monarch. In love with Ophelia, her Hamlet is queer but not disadvantaged, in a culture that openly accepts gays and lesbians.
“It was very important to me that queerness not be otherized in this production,” Benesch says. In the same vein, she’s not creating a world in which “a predominantly white audience needs to justify” that Hamlet isn’t set in an African state.
“In terms of social norms and expectations, I wasn’t interested in spending a lot of time justifying,” Benesch says. “I was really interested in spending time exploring.”
When Hamlet is a woman, a number of lines land differently. When a female Hamlet says of Queen Gertrude, “Frailty, thy name is woman,” she’s not condemning a lesser sex but decrying the common fate women share in that culture. And when Gertrude and Hamlet have a mother-daughter relationship, that changes the alchemy in a host of other relationships as well.
“I have never worked on a play that, when you open a door, there are six more doors right on the other side of it,” Benesch says. The approach, Benesch says, is grounded in “literally just letting the casting reveal the dimensionality of the script; letting this particular company reveal the play.”
Cracking the cultural locks on such a gatekept work gives it the chance to speak more universally. “It’s a story we know well, and sometimes we don’t want to listen in a new way,” Benesch says. “But the choices we make that are affected by this particular casting means that this version is going in a certain direction.”
And that has caused her to let go of the idea of making a final, definitive work—what she would call “the” Hamlet.
“It is a Hamlet,” Benesch says. “I hope it’s a good one, and an engaging one.”
Particularly given all that has come before, it’s significant that the last seconds of Honest Pint Theatre’s harrowing revival of A Steady Rain are as uncomfortable as any in that production. By then all the cards in playwright Keith Huff’s deck have been placed face up, in a decidedly unhurried dissection of the ethical gangrene that has set in after two street cops, Denny (Ryan Brock) and Joey (David Henderson), lifelong friends who grew up together on the scuzzy streets of inner-city Chicago, have become increasingly complicit in and enabling of each other’s personal and professional failings.
In the staccato rhythms of their hard-nosed neighborhood and work, the nuances in what had been their alpha-and-beta-dog relationship have been forcibly stripped away, along with the rationalizations, dodges, and lies that have let both of these repellent characters kid themselves that they’re the good guys. Denny’s marriage and the lives of other central characters have been permanently compromised by his toxic masculinity and reckless behavior, and Joey’s responses no longer read on what remains of his moral compass.
Under Susannah Hough’s direction, Brock’s and Henderson’s characters have both been sculpted—that is, carved down—to their dark essentials: what can be least defended, and what both are ultimately capable of.
They stare us down, as they face us, behind the table at a hearing different from the Internal Affairs probe that both had counted on. In the final moments of this gritty, profoundly disturbing psychological drama, they openly dare us to judge them. And that is why we must.
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