Thursday, July 13, 2017

Women in Shakespeare: Shalita Grant on Hermia

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 in Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shakespeare and related work in New York City.

This summer, Shalita Grant plays Hermia, one of the young lovers thrown into confusion in A Midsummer Night's DreamAudiences are probably most familiar with her TV work on NCIS: New Orleans, or her Tony-winning perf in Vanya & Sonja & Masha & SpikeBut she's also performed in Shakespeare at the Delacorte Theater and elsewhere in NYC. I emailed with her about her role in Midsummer.
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Let’s start with Hermia. What have you discovered about her that you find fascinating?

First of all, I am filled with gratitude to be back at the Park and working with the Public theater. This role was a dream of mine since high school, so to come back to the Park and do it is magical!

Hermia and I are very similar. The play opens with her in an incredibly sexist environment, and save for Hippolyta (who says nothing) it’s a group of men telling her what to do, and if she doesn’t they’ll kill her. She makes the bold choice to run away. What’s fascinating is that we haven’t made very much progress since Shakespeare’s era. Every woman in the rehearsal room deals with sexism so I didn’t have to dig too deep to know how Hermia feels.

Midsummer’s quartet of lovers can be seen as generic and interchangeable or as full-dimensioned individuals, depending on the staging. How have you and your Helena approached your roles?

Annaleigh Ashford [Helena] has been a breath of fresh air and a dream to work with. I love it when actors are willing to play and find and discover because that’s also how I work. Hermia and Helena are different people with different journeys, and while Annaleigh and I have similarities in how we work, we are very different women. So, I think people will see that. It’s inherent.

Turning to the production, you’re in the happy (and too-rare) position of working on Shak with a woman as director. How has gender informed your conversations with Ms. deBessonet on the play?

It’s fabulous to work with a woman on this because there’s a shorthand we already have just because of our gendered life experiences. She has encouraged a stronger Hermia and not the weeping ingenue. This decision makes not only the role but the production more interesting. All of the characters are active and actively trying to reach their goals. So it’s exciting to watch them change tactics and fight and fail.

Midsummer may be a timeless classic and a fun comedy, but why is it also the right play to revive this summer?

Our country is in dark uncertainty. Political pluralism is under attack and even civility is tenuous or non-existent in some places. Every morning I roll over and grab my phone and see rights have been taken away, unarmed citizens have been murdered by police and the victim's humanity is up for debate, the president and his many, many scandals and scandalous behavior; I’m tired before I even get out of bed.

But every night for the next month or so, I get to make people laugh and forget for a second how obnoxious and scary it is right now. We get to make you laugh and for two and half hours (with an intermission) you get to feel safe. The first day of rehearsal, Lear said, “This play is about what it means to be human.” Our humanity is more than pain, even if it’s what many of us are feeling at the present. Midsummer is a great reminder.

Talking about Shakespeare more generally, what’s your perspective on his roles for women?

I think the thing to remember was in Shakespeare’s time, men played the women’s roles. And speaking specifically to Midsummer, what’s fascinating is how strong the women are. His strengths in this play is setting up the real obstacles that women have to face in society. A friend saw our production and said, “The first scene really hit home, it was so gross watching those men do that!” The biggest weakness is that after Hermia and Helena get married… they don’t really speak!

Is there anything in his plays that’s beyond salvaging?

And as far as the most egregious elements of Shakespeare? In our production, we cut all the racism (I mean, in our day do we need more of that?) and even though our culture still suffers from a Eurocentric standard of beauty, I don’t think it’s worth derailing the magic of the other parts of the story for it. I think every production has to think and talk about how to handle the inherent racism in Shakespeare’s plays.

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 would love to play Cordelia, and made a real case to play Othello when I was at Juilliard (I didn’t get to). But I would be more interested in playing Iago!

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The Public Theater's Midsummer Night's Dream plays from Jul 13 to Aug 13 at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Tickets are free!

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headshot  Elena Gharbigi
photos  Simon Luethi

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