Playing Hamlet in a world on fire

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Playing Hamlet in a world on fire
Ato Blankson-Wood as the title role in “Hamlet” at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park in New York, June 9, 2023. As a veteran of the Public Theater’s free Shakespeare in the Park productions, Ato Blankson-Wood is used to contending with the elements. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

by Juan A. Ramírez

NEW YORK, NY.- As a veteran of the Public Theater’s free Shakespeare in the Park productions, Ato Blankson-Wood is used to contending with the elements. “The bugs, the helicopters flying overhead: There’s an intense focus that is necessary,” he said.

But for this summer’s production of “Hamlet,” he has had to dig deeper: Not only is he feeling the weight of the title role but, as he put it, “the world is on fire” and air-quality issues have forced the cancellation of four “Hamlet” performances so far.

Still, Blankson-Wood is undeterred.

“I remember that there’s a person in that audience who is maybe seeing a play for the first time, or who was very excited to come see a show,” he said during a recent interview at a cafe in Brooklyn. “That’s what I’m focused on. This is not about my experience; it’s for them, and for my scene partners.”

This alfresco staging of “Hamlet,” directed by Kenny Leon, is Blankson-Wood’s fifth production at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. His first, “Hair,” in 2008, was also his New York professional stage debut. Then he played the narcissistic Orsino in “Twelfth Night” in 2018 and Orlando in “As You Like It” in 2017 and 2022. He’s also had notable turns in more hospitable environments on Broadway and off, including his Tony-nominated run in “Slave Play.”

In Leon’s modern-dress production of “Hamlet,” Blankson-Wood opted for a contemporary take on the tragic prince: a sad boy dressed in military fatigues, flowy white shirts and a dark hoodie that he said the show’s costume designer, Jessica Jahn, created after learning of his inspiration.

“I had this thought that our most Hamletian modern figure is Kanye West,” he said. “We witnessed him losing a parent in the public eye, he’s been called a genius, and he has behaved in ways where people are like, ‘Is he OK?’ I think it’s exciting to imagine his moments of uncertainty, what his soliloquies might be.”

The actor, 38, said West’s recent controversies are less interesting to him. Which is not surprising. In speaking with Blankson-Wood, the sense emerges of an artist with little time for psychic clutter. Each morning, he recites daily affirmations (one he goes back to, borrowed from his “Slave Play” character, is, in part, “I am the prize”) and makes sure to engage his body (workouts at the gym), mind (post-workout podcasts, like “Spark & Fire” or Oprah Winfrey’s “Super Soul Sunday”) and spirit (“morning meditation, in a section of my room where I have a little cushion, altar and a remembrance of my grandmother”).

“I like to engage with the spiritual world,” he said. “It’s a part of my understanding of life on this planet, so I have to touch that every day to center myself.” Since “Hamlet,” he’s added a nightly bubble bath.

He came to the production after participating in a collaborative online reading of the play’s “To be or not to be” speech, which was performed by Black actors and released in 2020 by the Public to coincide with the Juneteenth holiday that year. Leon, a consultant on the piece, said he was struck by the strength and softness of Blankson-Wood’s performance.

“When it came time to cast Hamlet, I wanted to tell it through the eyes of the young people who felt hurt, betrayed and unloved in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder,” Leon said in a phone call. “Like Ato, this Hamlet leads with love, and is begging to be understood. We talked a lot about the mental health issues that young people are dealing with, because I wanted this production to have some hope, small as it is, by the end.”

Leon made a deal with the cast: Once Shakespearean scholar James Shapiro completed his edits, the actors would be allowed to add lines back in — though they would need to give up some of their own in exchange. The approach helped trim the five-hour play to two hours and 45 minutes, excising the military and royal aspects to focus on the family dynamics.

“We’ve been talking a lot about how Shakespeare is often cut by academics, and sometimes I wonder if there would be a benefit to it being cut by artists, seeing what’s really necessary from an actor’s standpoint,” Blankson-Wood said. “I have my issues with this cut. A lot of the meta-theatricality is gone, and that’s one of the things I love about the character, like his line about holding a mirror up to nature. I did fight to get some things back.”

The actor added that Leon’s “fiery” technique, on and off the page, took some getting used to, but he credited Leon with pushing him further than he thought he could go. (In his review for The New York Times, theater critic Jesse Green credited his performance with bringing “a vivid anger to the role.”)

“I get to purge emotionally every night,” he continued. “I can take bits of my day and pour it in there to release, if I need to, and I knew this production would be good for that.”

Blankson-Wood’s love of theater, and his drive to define his relationship to it, extends to his childhood.

Born the middle of five siblings in Silver Spring, Maryland, to Ghanaian immigrants, he grew up watching movie musicals with his mother. While his home was “culturally very traditionally Ghanaian,” he said musicals created a cultural bridge to his American interests, which led to acting.

He studied acting at New York University and was soon cast as a member of the tribe in a production of “Hair” at the Delacorte — which, coincidentally, shared the 2008 summer season with another “Hamlet,” starring Michael Stuhlbarg. He remained with “Hair” when it transferred to Broadway and then London’s West End but, following a run in the 2011 musical “Lysistrata Jones,” the actor said he felt a gap “between the work I was doing and what I felt I was capable of.”

“The ethos and energy behind commercial musical theater feels like it is really about the product,” he explained. “I don’t think that’s good or bad, but I do think my interests are always in process and craft, which I feel are more valued in plays. That’s where the impulse to go to grad school came from.”

He enrolled in the Yale School of Drama, where he became friends with James Cusati-Moyer (who would later be his “Slave Play” scene partner). The two became “like a traveling act: this duo that everyone knew of,” Cusati-Moyer said. “And then we started doing drag together.”

In 2013, they performed in Yale Cabaret’s inaugural “Yale School of Drag” show as well as a drag play written by their classmates — titled “We Know Edie La Minx Had a Gun” — which later had a 2016 presentation in Brooklyn. Blankson-Wood couldn’t reprise his role; he was giving what Charles Isherwood described as a breakout performance in “The Total Bent” at the Public. His replacement? An incoming Yalie named Jeremy O. Harris.

The three became friends, and Harris took inspiration from the friendship of the other two as he developed the characters of Gary and Dustin, one of three interracial couples undergoing dubious sex therapy in “Slave Play.”

“We had to navigate very difficult territory, as these characters were inspired by us but were specifically not Ato and I,” Cusati-Moyer said. “But there’s no one else I can imagine doing that role with. He brings every corner of his heart, and that comes with an innate care and appreciation for his own work, as well as the work of those around him.”

The show opened on Broadway in 2019 and garnered 12 Tony nominations, including nods for both actors; Harris; and the director, Robert O’Hara, who later directed Blankson-Wood in a 2022 COVID-era adaptation of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” at the Minetta Lane Theater.

“I’m not necessarily drawn to these internal, isolating roles, but something happened when I went to grad school where it felt like a faucet turned on and emotional availability became my go-to,” Blankson-Wood said.

After “Slave Play,” he continued, “I was very aware of my inherent value, because that’s the journey my character was on. I now really understand what it means to take ownership of my process, and have found my voice in that way.

“After that and ‘Long Day’s’ and this, I’m ready for something that has levity and is heart-forward.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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