The Shakespeare in the Park production of RICHARD III, starring Danai Gurira (who has played warriors in THE WALKING DEAD and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as well as being an award-winning playwright) in the title role, ran from June 21, 2022 through July 17, 2022 at the open-air Delacorte Theater in New York’s Central Park.

In July, 2022, the production was recorded for PBS’s GREAT PERFORMANCES series, to air Friday, May 19, 2023.

Robert O’Hara, who directed the production of RICHARD III, was born in Cincinatti, Ohio. He was nominated for a Tony Award for his direction of SLAVE PLAY. O’Hara is also a playwright, whose produced stage works include the award-winning INSURRECTION: HOLDING HISTORY and BOOTYCANDY, and writer/director of the 2011 horror feature THE INHERITANCE. O’Hara wrote and directed plays at the Washington, D.C.-based Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, where Gurira was a fellow company member.

During PBS’s portion of the winter 2023 Television Critics Association press tour in January at Pasadena’s Langham Hotel, following a Q&A panel with Gurira and WNET executive Stephen Segaller, O’Hara sits down for a one-on-one discussion of his direction of RICHARD III.

ASSIGNMENT X: Who came onto the production first, you as director, or Danai Gurira as star?

ROBERT O’HARA: I did. I was asked what play I would like to do, and I knew I wanted to work with Danai. And so, I picked plays, and then I said, “How about RICHARD III with Danai?” Oskar Eustis, who is the artistic director [of the Public Theatre, which manages Shakespeare in the Park], thought that was a fantastic idea. We both have very long relationships with Danai. And so, we reached out to her, and she said yes.

AX: Is she playing Richard as a trans man, or as a cisgendered man?

O’HARA: She’s playing Richard as written, as a cisgendered man.

AX: What differences, if any, are there in directing a woman actor as a cisgendered man, and a cisgendered man in the role?

O’HARA: As Danai said in the panel, she can’t just go and play the villain. I think that many men, especially cisgendered men, are able to just go in and just be a villain. And they have no consequences. They go and they do horrible things [laughs], and they don’t have any moments of going, “Wait a second. How is this affecting my body, how is this affecting the rest of my life? Is this a good thing for me morally?” It’s usually, “I’m the villain, and I’m used to playing that, and so, I don’t have a consequence.”

We talked about this, and her being a woman, she carries trauma in a different way, and she’s allowed to be openly vulnerable as a woman playing a man. And so, we see colors of this man that we don’t normally see men carry, because men just want to be either the hero or the villain, and it doesn’t cost you anything.

I constantly was asking her, “What does it cost you to do these acts? What does it cost you to kill your brother, and to manipulate your other brother? And to kill children? And to kill a king? That has to weigh on you in a way.” So, when she does get to the scene where she’s having a nightmare, and Richard is in his own moral swamp, there’s a level of vulnerability that I’ve never seen in Richard, because she was able to access it from herself as a woman who is used to being able to access parts of herself and put that on the stage differently than men. Because men I think are not required or requested to be vulnerable.

AX: So, it has to do with the life experience of the performer?

O’HARA: Yes. I think every part has to do with the life experience of the performer, but particularly for Danai, who is also known and famous for playing very, very strong characters. It allows her to be a little bit vulnerable, in a character [in which] you don’t normally see vulnerability. You see anger, you see revenge, but rarely do you see remorse and pain in RICHARD III, which is what Danai, I think, brought to it.

AX: Had you thought of having a woman play Richard III prior to looking for a Shakespearean play to do with Danai Gurira?

O’HARA: No. I don’t, because I don’t have that sort of premeditated idea. I pick people who I want to be in the room with, and who I want to work with, and I allow them to bring their full self. And then I am surprised in the collaboration as to what comes out. So, I never want to have a preordained quality that I’m looking for an actor to have that limits them. I actually want to be collaborative.

And I didn’t know what Danai would see in the part. I didn’t know if she would want to do the part, because the part spends two hours of being called every awful name possible. And to do that over and over, and to have people who see you be called these different names – some of them are highlighted, because “devil” and “black dog” and “slave” – because it operates differently on the Black body. And so, I was excited to see what Danai, and what the rest of the diverse cast, would bring to those things. So, I didn’t want to set a mandate, or dictate. I wanted to find it organically.

AX: You have a very diverse cast, both racially and in terms of differently-abled actors. To name a few, Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York, is played by deaf actor Monique Holt, and Lady Anne is played by Ali Stroker, who uses a wheelchair. Were you thinking strategically about the race and/or physical qualities of the other characters, or was your thought, “I’d like to work with this person, and who would they be good as?”

O’HARA: Well, I’d worked with about half of the people before. And there were two things that I was thinking – “I want a diverse cast, and I also want to give opportunity to people who are not necessarily given the opportunity.” Every actor in New York, I think, has this dream of, “I would love to be in Shakespeare in the Park at least once.” And the same with directors. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity that you feel like has been the domain of a certain group of people, and a certain race of people. And so, I could not see myself having this opportunity, and then doing a show that looked like every other show [laughs]. So, it was really about, what can that person bring to this part that is different than what I’ve seen before?

So, the fact that Queen Elizabeth [Heather Alicia Simms] and Queen Margaret [Sharon Washington] are Black women, who are also, I’ve worked with them in various other roles, was exciting to me, because Black people are rarely asked to play elevated roles, or to play any type of leadership, unless it’s the head of a police station, or the head of a trauma ward. But a classical king and classical queen?

It was important to me [to have Ali Stroker as Lady Anne] because, first of all, I thought she was a fantastic actress. But also, Richard has to woo her. And Ali comes from musical theatre – that’s how I encountered Ali – and there’s a sort of innocence that’s there that we take as vulnerability.

But I think that Lady Anne is very well aware of what’s happening in the play. Usually, the scene between Lady Anne and Richard is her sort of not understanding why he’s here, and being appalled that he would say these things to her, and woo her while she’s trying to bury her father-in-law.

At a certain point, Ali and I were saying, “I think she might be trying to get something out of it.” And Ali said, very clearly, “You know what? Who’s going to take care of me? I’m in a wheelchair. I’m somebody’s widow, and I’m used to living a certain way. So, I may do this, because I want to be taken care of.”

And it’s not like today. She doesn’t have an automatic wheelchair, there are no ramps for her in the palace. So, there was something very real about who she would be at that time, and the desperate nature of, “Okay, I guess I’ll deal with this, because it will allow me to live the same way I’d been living when I was married to the person that he just killed.”

AX: You said during the panel that you and Danai Gurira had discussed the story that you wanted to tell, versus the stories that other people had told, of Richard III. What are those differences?

O’HARA: Well, if you take Ian McKellen’s Richard [which he had played at the National Theatre in London, then on a 1990 world tour, then in the 1995 film version], they had set it into the Nazi era. Others set it in the modern era, or set it in a Renaissance era. Danai was very clear, and I was very clear, that we wanted her to play a man, that we didn’t want it to make Richard into a woman. I was invested in what it would mean for her to live inside of the privilege and the entitlement of this man, who is a king.

And so, I said we should keep it in the time period. And we agreed that the time period is at the end if the [English] civil war. So, for most of Richard’s life, his family has been at war. His life has been in danger. And I think that that was very important for our production – that at any moment, someone may come and slit your throat, and it might be your brother. So, the brutality is a part of the firmament.

I think what that changes for us is that we think of historical times as being sort of distant. But when you put the distance in silhouette, and we add on the present, the presence of color, the presence of diversity, it sort of shocks us to see that we’re not doing a modern-day version of this because it’s a Black woman. And Black people did exist back then, so that was important to me. And I think that’s the difference between, “I’m just a white man, playing another white man,” that white men have always done. So, it just adds another level of investigation, I think, to the production.

AX: With the costume design by Dede Avite and the production design by Myung Hee Cho, some of it is black and white, and some of it is really colorful. Is this to indicate the contrast between stark morality and moral ambiguity?

O’HARA: I think we wanted that silhouette to be period and traditional, but the texture and color and fabric was contemporary. I actually remember telling the costume designer, the play takes place in royalty. There’s maybe one common scene with regular people. But these are people of means, and of fashion. These are people in the upper echelons of society and of politics, and it’s very violent, and yet they dress very well. So, I don’t know if it was about moral characters and if everyone is questionable in the play, but it was about how this actually speaks to where we are now, in a particular time.

And also, it was particularly integral to the hairstyle [the hair and wig designer is Nikiya Mathis], in the costuming, and in the styling, the acknowledgement of their Blackness. And we blinged out Ali’s wheelchair, because she should have a royal wheelchair. Those sorts of things were very exciting, to find out how those characters can live inside the story we’re telling.

AX: When in the life of the production did you know that they were going to shoot it for GREAT PERFORMANCES?

O’HARA: I knew from the very beginning. [GREAT PERFORMANCES] had done the last two Shakespeare in the Parks, and I was told very early that it was probably going to be broadcast on PBS.

AX: Did you do anything differently in your direction of the play, based on that knowledge?

O’HARA: No, because I knew I would not have any technical relationship to [the videography]. And so, it was very important that I keep the integrity of the production, and that they just film what I had done, and not that I try and make the production for PBS, because it was actually for the people in New York City, the live performance.

Now, they shot four different performances, and we edited – because sometimes, you miss a shot, or you’ve got the wrong camera or what have you, so you want to pick those up. And I would be giving notes after each performance, and going, “Well, we need to make sure we get this.”

Because there’s a camera here, you can’t have a bunch of people sitting around it. So, if this camera picks up that camera, it looks like there’s no one there, and we wanted to make sure that it felt full, because it was a full audience, except for where the cameras were. So, it’s little things like that. So, those sorts of things were done as we were filming it, but I had no relationship to it being filmed while I was directing it.

AX: Do you direct differently for a performance that is outdoors, like this RICHARD III, versus a performance in a more traditional indoor theatre space?

O’HARA: You do, because first of all, the level at which you have to project [the voice] is different. And also, the quality of the space surrounding – there are different sounds. There are fire trucks, there are airplanes, there’s weather. So, you have to go a bit bigger. You can’t be so intimate.

You also have to push through it. Everyone is welcome to the park. So, it’s not just outdoors, it’s in a public park that is open to the public. The whole backstage, there’s no wall back there. It was open to the rest of the park. And there’s Belvedere Castle there, so people would sit at the castle and watch the show and have a conversation or have a party, or what have you. So, it’s just allowing the cast to know that it’s okay, that that’s part of the experience of being outside.

Of course, not being able to rehearse inside means that you have to rehearse in the sun. And then at night, you put the lights on, because that’s when we do the performance. So, it’s rehearsing in the blistering sun, and taking many breaks, and having fans, and then coming back out. You have these Shakespearean costumes on.

And then, at night, you have the raccoons and all the nature, so it’s all that stuff that I sort of don’t like [laughs], being outside at night in a park. The raccoons will just scurry across whenever they’re good and ready to. But when the audiences come in, it all goes away.

AX: And what would you most like people to get out of your production of RICHARD III?

O’HARA: I would like for them to get out of it that Shakespeare is for everyone, and that the work is for everyone, and that you can see yourselves in all these different stories.

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Article: Exclusive Interview: RICHARD III: Director Robert O’Hara on new PBS Shakespeare adaptation


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