In the new Classical Theatre of Harlem's production of Twelfth Night, 2022 Tony-nominee Kara Young (Clyde's) plays the heroine Viola, who pretends to be a man after being shipwrecked and washing up on the shores of the lively city Illyria. Taking charge of her destiny, Viola works to navigate this new place, find her brother, and not become entangled in love triangles. Artistic Director Carl Cofield has created a production that features virtual reality, afrofuturistic aesthetics, and music “unlike anything Shakespeare could have imagined.”
Cofield and Young discuss how the production, now running (for free) in Harlem's Marcus Garvey Park through July 29, resonates with the neighborhood, and how it invites the community into Shakespeare’s comedy.
With its mission to bring theatre to underserved communities, how does Classical Theatre of Harlem invite audiences in with this production of Twelfth Night?
Carl Cofield: We think of ourselves as a service organization, in the best sense of the word. We’re bringing a service to the Harlem community. We all know that one of the main things during COVID, and even before COVID, was to reduce the arts. But, we believe that the arts are integral to everyone's education, growth, and development. The past few years being what they are, we felt that it was paramount to bring some joy, and some levity, and be in community again with one another. Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare's greatest comedies—it's rich, thought provoking, heartbreaking, joyful, funny. Our production is going to highlight each of those themes with music, with dance...things that Classical Theatre of Harlem is known for.
Kara Young: Classical Theatre of Harlem has been doing incredible work for so long for Marcus Garvey Park and for access to free theatre uptown. When we talk about access to theatre, and this has been a big conversation for as long as I can remember, we ask “How do we pull different audiences to theatre?” Having a free experience, it becomes, ”All you have to do is show up and suspend yourself in this world. You don’t have to think about sacrificing a meal.” And there are a lot of people that occupy that park, people without housing. It’s for them, too.
Kara, you’re returning to perform for your neighborhood. Can you tell me a bit about what your access to theatre was like growing up in Harlem?
Young: Harlem was always rich with great characters. I remember having access to the greatest theatre on the planet, because that was just stepping outside. I feel like, as an adult still living in Harlem pretty close to where I grew up, there’s something about what it has become that feels a little foreign to what I grew up with. Harlem is still obviously a very beautiful place, and what has been constant is the beautiful energy of Marcus Garvey Park and the cultural staples of Harlem—like the Abyssinian Baptist Church, The Schomburg, and 125th Street. To return in this way feels like not only an offering, but like a gift to myself as well.
Carl, what do you think Twelfth Night can still teach today’s audiences?
Cofield: Illyria is a world where wit and music have a strong currency. I think that's pretty relevant throughout history, even in our Twitter day and age. If you can write a pithy statement on Twitter, you can get recirculated. [Twitter] is concise, witty, and on message.
I think there's always been something about music, that if you can really encompass and embody music, that gives you entree to so many different circles, so many different arenas. Illyria highlights that very specifically; Feste is the only character who's able to go to different houses and be welcomed, and I would say that that was largely in part because of Feste’s ability to captivate and to catapult through music.
Talk about some of the parallels between Harlem and Illyria, the world of the play, and how you highlight them.
Cofield: Illyria is one a coastal city which many different people have access to. We do know that music has a strong currency. We're setting this in the world of about 2050. What would that world look like? How would music sound? It was more interesting to me to put a modern 22nd century take on what that could be. I'm really always interested in saying “How can we make this ancient work more relevant, more alive to today's audiences?” Whenever I have the privilege to direct, something always at the forefront of my thinking is “Would the 13-year-old version of Carl want to come see this production?” For me, that landed in an afrofuturistic zip code. Our music is going to be unlike anything, I think, that Shakespeare can imagine. We’re also introducing virtual reality into our production.
Young: The most interesting thing about this experience is it’s so foreign to me. It’s not a new play, but then you have a brilliant director and a brilliant visionary in Carl Viola’s overall objective is trying to figure out what happened, navigating this world re-gendering herself, but she’s also looking for her roots. I think that’s a very deep parallel, for me, to Harlem. There are changes that we go through when our communities are misplaced and displaced, moving and changing. And there are also beautiful changes. When I say Viola is trying to get to her roots, it’s like, ”Where did I come from? Who am I? Where am I going?” Obviously, I’m still digging, because Shakespeare is so meticulously complex, and every word means so much. It’s very Lynn Nottage. Every word, and every word met by another word, is a universe.