(Michael Paulson’s article originally appeared in The New York Times, 9/6; Photo: The New York Times; via artdaily.com and Pam Green.)
Actor Jessika Williams in Staunton, Va., Sept. 3, 2020. Williams, who said she not only wanted the title role in Shakespeare’s “Othello,” but needed the work, made a decision no actor wants to make: She resigned from the Actors’ Equity union, potentially giving up a variety of benefits and protections, to take the part. Melanie Metz/The New York Times.
|NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Jessika D. Williams has wanted to play the title role in “Othello” since she was a teenager.
Now she’s 35, with quotes from Shakespeare tattooed down both arms, and after years studying in Scotland, working in Britain and traveling the United States by van to perform in regional theaters, she finally got the part this summer, at the American Shakespeare Center, a destination theater in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
There was only one hitch, but it was a big one: the coronavirus pandemic.
Actors’ Equity, the labor union representing performers and stage managers, barred its members from in-person performances around the country, citing safety concerns. The union then made a handful of exceptions, mostly in New England, where infection rates are low; the Virginia theater was among scores denied a waiver.
The American Shakespeare Center, located in a rural community with few cases and with a company of actors who signed an “isolation covenant” and live together, decided to proceed anyway, using nonunion actors and elaborate safety protocols.
Williams, who said she not only wanted the role but needed the work, made a decision no actor wants to make: She resigned from the union, potentially giving up a variety of benefits and protections, to take the part.
Now she is part of a troupe performing “Othello” and “Twelfth Night” in repertory, with each production being staged indoors, outdoors and online, so patrons can choose however they are most comfortable seeing the show. (The indoor stage, called the Blackfriars Playhouse, is described by the company as “the world’s only re-creation of Shakespeare’s indoor theater.”)
Actors’ Equity has been critical. The union accused the nonprofit theater of abandoning its commitment to safety and listed it as among a handful that are “no longer Equity producers.”
But the American Shakespeare Center sees the situation differently, noting that in normal years, it employs not only Equity and non-Equity actors at its home in Staunton, Virginia, but also a non-Equity touring ensemble that performs in Staunton as well as on the road. When the pandemic prompted the theater to cancel its main season, it decided to come up with a safety plan and stage the two plays now running with the nonunion company.
In a phone interview from Virginia, Williams talked calmly and confidently about her decision, the “Othello” production and the pandemic. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
You’ve been thinking about playing Othello since you were a kid. Why?
I was like, “Oh, there’s a Black character in Shakespeare? I’ve got to play it!”
What do you think the significance is of playing the role as a Black woman?
I was doing a lot of research into the men who have played this before me, and something that came up a lot was, how do you play this beautiful person and not fall into the trap of perpetuating the idea that Black people are overemotional, monstrous, barbarous creatures? As a woman, I feel like I was able to get around the fear of that, because it didn’t have to do with being a man, it just had to do with being a human being. Also, it’s just really great to hand a female a role of this size — we’ve seen female Hamlets, female Richard IIs, we just recently saw a female Lear — and I think that’s important that women can tackle these epic roles.
You opted to resign as a member of your union to take the role. Can you explain what happened?
It was really sad, actually. To me it felt like Equity was assuming that I was being thrust into an unsafe situation, and that’s not how I felt at all.
But at the end of the day, I wasn’t receiving any unemployment, and I needed a paycheck. I live in a van and travel from job to job, and that had just broken down. And I have a lot of love for this place and a lot of love for the people in the community. It’s a small town, and the theater drives the restaurants and the small businesses. And I chose to stay.
It was a really, really tough decision for me. I really hoped that Equity would understand, and I hope that they will understand in the future. But ultimately I needed a job, and there weren’t a lot of other opportunities, and I felt a lot safer at the ASC than if I had to pick up a job at a grocery store or go work a service industry job and find my all the way across the country during the pandemic and move in with my mother, who is elderly and at risk.
It felt like the right thing to do, and I don’t regret it.
Do you feel safe?
I do, actually. I really do. Staunton has been pretty low as far as COVID cases are concerned. We all live in one building. The theater is a two-minute walk from where we all stay. No one is traveling. No one is taking public transportation. It’s scary at times, but that’s the nature of the world we’re living in.
What would you want the union to hear from you?
I wish that they had considered it more thoroughly. I completely understand from their standpoint — from a very New York-centric and Broadway-centric perspective — that it just doesn’t seem doable. They couldn’t come down here because of the travel restrictions, but they don’t really know what our theater is like or what this community is like. I wish they had considered our SafeStart protocols a little more thoroughly. I just hope that Equity understands my position in choosing to jump into survival mode and take care of myself, my immediate community, and the theater.
In this production, Othello is not the only character played by an actor of color. How do you think having a diverse cast affects the way we see the play?
I feel like it eliminates a lot of preconceived notions of exactly what the play is about. It’s not that the play isn’t racist, but the play isn’t actually about racism — it’s about a lot. And I think that having other members of the cast of color helps to pull out and highlight other aspects of the human condition that Shakespeare is touching on in this play.
Why are you so drawn to Shakespeare’s work?
The words to me have always felt really visceral. Speaking the text does things to my body. I’m not a scholar, but the more plays I dig into, I really think that Shakespeare had a good grip on humanity, and even though it’s stuck and confined in gender roles and history and tropes and stock characters, he really does get to the essence of the human condition.
You and the other actors live together in a pandemic bubble. What has that been like?
I feel like I’m married to every single individual in this company right now. It is tough. It can be isolating. But we do our best. We bake for each other. We cook for each other. And we really rally together when someone is having a hard time.
Your audience is masked. How does that affect your ability to relate to them?
We don’t get that collective reaction. It makes you have to work harder. If I’m going to take something to the audience, or ask them a question, I really have to look into their eyes, and I might not know what I’m getting back. But if someone is leaning forward, or leaning back, we can still gather information.
What are your expectations for next summer?
I do hope that the American theater gets up and running. I do hope that Equity continues to work with these smaller regional theaters, because I don’t think that there is a “one size fits all” here. I hope that we can get people to gather again. We’ve got to find a way to continue to educate and enlighten and entertain.
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