Since most Shakespearean casts are male-heavy and even male-only, coverage tends to focus on men who create the work. Let's balance that out! This is the second season of my interview series, Women on Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shakespeare and related work in New York City.
Twice each season, the Public Theater's Mobile Unit tours NYC neighborhoods with stagings of classic plays. The company is about to conclude its all-boro tour of Twelfth Night with a brief run at its home on Lafayette Street. Danaya Esperanza led the cast across the five boroughs as their Viola. Recently she's appeared in several new plays Off-Broadway, most notably in Men in Boats at Clubbed Thumb.
Let’s start with Viola. What have you discovered about her that you find fascinating? What knots did the playwright leave for you to untangle?
I find Viola's agency both captivating and infuriating. In the beginning of the play, she takes her fate into her own hands very quickly and with resolve — and though she knows she can only control so much, she takes control. Once she is betrothed at the end of the play, she is silent. Orsino speaks for her and yet he never says her name — she is his mistress, she is simply his. We've experimented a bit with the lines at the end of the play in our production, but the text as Shakespeare wrote it leaves me with several thoughts/questions: If this truly is the cusp of Viola's "happiness," why is she silent? She has spent the play expressing herself, so is this silence relief? Or is it fear? Why does Shakespeare leave her dressed as Cesario? Is the heterosexual nature of this future marriage a disappointment? Why can't Orsino want me as I choose to be?
As an actor, can you speak to what makes her such a fully-realized woman onstage?
I am a woman. Viola is fully realized because I am a living, breathing being. I am real, so Viola is real.
How does she view and deal with the world that Shakespeare creates onstage?
Viola has a kind of limitless mobility in the play, shared only with Feste because it is usually reserved for fools. I believe Viola's ability to move seamlessly between Orsino and Olivia's households comes from her tragic sensibility combined with her love of wit: she is beautifully clever even as her heart is breaking. For me, this combination is the key to her survival.
Viola is one of a type: Shakespeare’s adventurous, crossdressing ingénues. What does she share with roles like Portia, Rosalind, and Imogen?
With all of these roles, I believe Shakespeare reveals the lack of agency that women had in his sociopolitical climate. I think we are drawn to them now because we recognize how far we have come and how far we still have to go. All of these women feel freedom when they are treated as men's equals, and more often superiors, but this only comes when they disguise themselves. Why? That's one question I want our audiences to walk away with and to discuss with the people in their lives.
Delving more deeply into your thoughts on Twelfth Night, how does your perspective as a woman of color influence your portrayal of Viola?
In our production, Viola is an Afro Cuban refugee in Miami. This is a rare gift for me because I actually am a Cuban refugee. I grew up feeling a deep sense of loss for Cuba, a home I did not know long enough; and I grew up feeling that I didn't truly belong anywhere in the US, to any particular group besides "Cuban immigrants." I was never really allowed in anywhere else (though this is changing for me now — I think ostracized groups are coming together as a force and voice for equality, but I didn't experience this level of unity growing up). And in Cuba, I am Americanizada. I am also queer. Always the Other.
I think this is exactly Viola's position: the Other. In the play, I end up working for a white man and wooing a white Cuban woman on his behalf. And I am misunderstood by them both. I'm the mysterious Other who brings Olivia and Orsino's worlds together. In fact, all of the servants in our production happen to be immigrants and/or people of color and/or LGBTQ. We mirror our society: We compose the complicated inner mechanisms on which the world of the play is built and runs — we compose the complicated inner mechanisms on which this country was built and continues to run.
Do you have any other Shakespearean roles you’d love to play, or to go back to? Not just the women either — any dream-roles traditionally played by men?
I'm going to play Edmund one day.
The Public's Mobile Unit stages Twelfth Night from Apr 24 to May 14 at the Public Theater in the Village. Tickets are free!
photos Joan Marcus