In 1990, Sharon Washington took the stage as Lady Anne in The Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park last production of Richard III. Now, Tony winner Ali Stroker takes on the role of Lady Anne, with Washington returning to the Delacorte Theater for the first time in 32 years as Queen Margaret. Tony nominee Robert O’Hara directs the Shakespeare tragedy about Richard III, a cunning and ruthlessly ambitious man (played by Tony nominee Danai Gurira) who seeks to take the throne of England during the Wars of the Roses.
Washington and Stroker talk about the production’s focus on the women of the play, their characters’ survival instincts, and what it’s like working together on this production.
You share the unique connection of both playing Lady Anne on the Delacorte stage, and get to star alongside each other. Can you tell me a bit about what that connection has been like?
Sharon Washington: Loving that Ali is doing it. Ali and I, we've heard about each other and knew each other. And I, of course, saw her in Oklahoma! We've kind of been in each other's orbit, but we were so excited to actually do it together. There’s so many things about [this production] that kind of give me goosebumps. Mary Alice, she was the Margaret when I did Anne 30 years ago, she is still alive. And even though she's retired, I am so privileged to stay in touch with her. I told her I was doing it and I'm looking forward to seeing her while I'm here. It's full circle.
Ali Stroker: Sharon has become such a good friend. She is so kind and thoughtful, a dream person to work with. We’ve chatted about her production, and her thoughts. I think that her production was different than ours, in so many ways. But, it's been so fun to get to know her, and hear about her experiences.
What’s it like performing at the Delacorte?
Washington: It's awesome, it's exciting. It’s really hard to believe that it was 32 years ago that I was here the last time. I stepped backstage and, wow, I had an immediate sense memory of ‘Oh, yes, this is where I would always hit my head.’ I had this big sort of conical thing with the veil I’d hit every time I cross under the stage. But all joking aside, it's glorious to be coming back with this role.
Stroker: This is my first time. It's the ultimate test at staying flexible. Our first three previews, it rained. The first was canceled, the second we had to end early, and the third we started an hour and 20 minutes late. You just don't know what's going to happen every night, whether it be wind or bugs, birds flying over, raccoons, frogs in the background. But, it's really fun, because it forces you to stay super present in what you're doing.
Describe your characters.
Stroker: Sometimes, we judge Shakespeare's women as being weak, but Anne's really powerful. She has a lot of challenges and a lot of things that she's up against. And she realizes that she has to make some decisions about her life that aren't necessarily perfect, but are going to give her the best possible outcome. She has to make the best of her situation, and I think I identified it as being somebody who has to overcome, and has to find her inner strength.
Washington: I would describe Queen Margaret as a warrior. I think, had she been a man, she would have been ruling. In Richard, she is the survivor who has seen everything. The War of the Roses, she survived it. They banished her, but she's like, "I'm not going anywhere. I still have something to say. Everything you're going through now, I've seen already. I've seen the turnover. You've killed my son, there's nothing else you can do to me." That's how I see her, as a strong survivor, and speak-truth-to-power person. And I feel like Margaret is a lot of strong women in my family. The funny side of that is like the older Auntie at the barbecue who comes in, and is ready to curse everybody out, get her plate, and leave. That's my Margaret. She's going to look regal and pulled together when she does it, but it's, "This is what's wrong with you," and "You've raised that child wrong," and "I told you he wasn't any good." So, I've been pulling on that, which has been a lot of fun.
What were some of the challenges you’ve faced in taking on these roles?
Stroker: Well, I've never done a Shakespeare play professionally, and the language is challenging—to make that language feel natural. I started working on the material about a month and a half, two months before rehearsals, and my husband has an acting studio and I took a class with him. It was super helpful to just be speaking the words every week. Shakespeare is like a muscle. And if you can work those muscles, you can then find freedom and strengthen it. But it took me a little while.
Washington: That’s very accurate. Thankfully, the muscle memory does return. It does take a minute for your ear to adapt. It takes more power, more breath to support to get through to the end of the verse line. It can be very technical in the beginning, but once it clicks, you can really ride the language. [Also,] there's more table work that needs to be done before you stand up. When Shakespeare did these, the audiences knew what happened during the War of the Roses. They knew that history, it was accessible to them. For us, you have to do all the genealogy to even know who you're talking to or about.
What do you hope audiences find compelling about this production?
Washington: Being a Black woman in this business, I feel like a survivor and a thriver. This business is tough for anybody. It’s certainly tough for women, and it's certainly tough for women of color. For older actresses, it's never easy, but I think of Jean Smart in Hacks and when women who are older are really finding their voice and their power. Audiences are finding that very compelling. So, I'm excited about that. This play, from however many hundreds of years it is, still resonates and can continue to resonate differently from one decade to the next, one year to the next. Right now, it seems like from one week to the next. It’s wild.
Stroker: I think that this version really stresses the diversity of these people. And I think Robert has done a really brilliant job casting. It's one of the most diverse casts I've ever been a part of. One of the things that was really important to Robert was that we bring ourselves to these people. Be authentic and not ignore who we are. Maybe I’m not a typical looking Anne. But that informs this, and in doing that, we really are able to tell the story a little bit differently. I think a lot of people are intimidated by it, and I hope that people take away from our production that you can come see a Shakespeare play, and understand and enjoy the story.
Richard III runs through July 17 at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. The Public's Free Shakespeare in the Park musical adaptation of As You Like It by Shaina Taub and Laurie Woolery begins performances August 10. Visit PublicTheater.org.