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Why it matters that Danai Gurira is taking on Richard III

Danai Gurira and Matthew August Jeffers in the Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard III.
Joan Marcus
/
Public Theater
Danai Gurira and Matthew August Jeffers in the Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard III.

Richard III is one of Shakespeare's greatest roles. The villainous monarch has been played by actors from Laurence Olivier to Ian McKellen to Mark Rylance. This summer, it's being played with a twist. Danai Gurira, best known for her roles in Marvel films like Black Panther and television's The Walking Dead, is playing King Richard onstage.

Gurira is a classically trained actress, but when New York's Public Theater asked if she'd like to play Richard III this summer in Central Park, she was surprised.

"I remember just laughing and finding it really thrilling and scary," said Gurira. "And it felt right, but it was nothing I would ever have thought of myself."

Gurira took her two months to say yes to the part, but once she started preparing, she got excited. She said that it was interesting to explore "toxic masculinity" as a perpetrator instead of an object - and that the role brought up a lot of questions.

"Is there a different experience the audience has when they hear misogyny come through a female body? Does it highlight it more? Does it sharpen it in terms of how grotesque it is? And I hope it does," she said.

Women cast as male characters in Shakespeare have been around for a long time – Sarah Bernhardt famously played Hamlet in 1899. But more recently, Fiona Shaw played Richard II, Glenda Jackson played King Lear and Ruth Negga played Hamlet.

The character of Richard III famously talks about his physical disabilities, and there's a theatrical history of people showing that in a physical way.

"People put a hump on their back or people strap their arms down or slide their foot across the stage," said director Robert O'Hara.

But that doesn't happen here.

"Richard's otherness is his Blackness in this world," said O'Hara.

Gurira added, "he's dealing with the otherness compared to his family, in terms of not being Caucasian and fair like them." The word fair, she said, is used a lot in the play.

Ali Stroker and Heather Alicia Simms
Joan Marcus / Public Theater
/
Public Theater
Ali Stroker and Heather Alicia Simms

Though Gurira plays Richard without any outward disabilities, the idea of disability sparked a thought in O'Hara's mind. He wanted to open up the conversation.

"If we're going to talk about disabled actors, then why don't we open up the entire play?," he asked. "Any actor can play any of these parts."

So O'Hara populated his stage with a diverse group of actors: Ali Stroker plays Queen Anne in a wheelchair, deaf actress Monique Holt plays the Dutchess of York and uses sign language, and Greg Mozgala, who plays both Edward IV and Henry VII, has cerebral palsy.

A dictator and a despot

Richard is brutal in his political ambition – he kills or orders the execution of anyone in his way. In preparing for the role, Gurira studied the history of dictators and despots. She's long been fascinated by actual and wannabe dictators. Her play Eclipsed was set Liberia's civil war when a group tried to depose dictator Charles Taylor. And so she prepared by reading The Dictator's Handbook, which she found invaluable.

"A despot's desire and goal is really to retain power for as long as possible," Gurira says. "It's what was going on in the 1400s and it's what's going on today."

And, of course, Gurira immersed herself in Shakespeare's language. Richard develops an intimate relationship with the audience through his frequent soliloquies, where he baldly confesses all the murder and mayhem he's planning.

"It becomes a really fascinating exploration because it really is saying, 'you're coming with me and guess what? You're kind of complicit because you're having a good time, aren't you?'" Gurira said. "And I think that does reflect on, How do these guys even get into power? Like somebody says, 'Okay.' A lot of people say, 'Okay.'"

Sharon Washington as Lady Margaret - who tries to warn the court about Richard's machinations.
Joan Marcus / Public Theater
/
Public Theater
Sharon Washington as Lady Margaret - who tries to warn the court about Richard's machinations.

But not everyone says okay to Richard. The female characters, like Queen Margaret, consistently call him out on his misdeeds.

"When you have the women essentially speaking to another woman who is playing a man, there's something quite interesting," O'Hara said, "because when you see the relief of all the men standing around doing absolutely nothing but enabling this person, it becomes sort of shockingly realistic in today's world."

Ultimately, Richard's downfall comes swiftly, because, for all his ambition, he's unequipped to govern and is left without any allies – he's either killed them, or they've abandoned him.

O'Hara said it's been fun to see a charismatic actress like Gurira play the villain onstage. "It is not just the domain of sort of white cis men to play kings and queens, right?" he said. "And I think when you put that body on stage, it changes the chemistry of the story. What makes Shakespeare a classic is that it still works, no matter who's in the space. And that you can sort of stretch it and pull it. And it's still Richard III. And that's what we're excited for people to see."

Richard III is free and will be playing in Central Park through July 17th.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.