It's been a while since Renée Elise Goldsberry has done theatre. Seven years, in fact. Since Goldsberry won the Tony Award for playing Angelica Schuyler in Hamilton, she's been spending more time in film and television—she's one of the leads in the musical comedy series Girls5Eva and a leading player in She-Hulk on Disney+. Goldsberry admits that while she owes her career to the theatre, "it's just sometimes challenging because I don't want to miss my children," she says. Goldsberry is the mother of two.
But then the Public Theater came to her with, "an opportunity I could not refuse." What if Goldsberry did a musical for its Shakespeare in the Park program, and her kids were in the cast? Goldsberry was sold. "I can have my cake and eat it too," she marvels. "And when my cake would be putting on another production with the Public Theater, specifically this summer, when it is the last show at the Delacorte for a few years, you just can't pass up the opportunity."
When Goldsberry spoke to Playbill, she was deep in tech, after having worked until after midnight on The Tempest (which runs August 27–September 3). Her two kids are in the ensemble—though they've done musicals at camp, this is their first professional production. But they have not been intimidated by the 2 PM to 12 AM tech rehearsal schedule. "The hours are pretty fun for them," she says chuckling. "My son will leave me to be on time to rehearsal."
It's fair to say that this Tempest is unlike any that's been produced. One: It's a new musical, composed by Benjamin Velez. Two: It's part of the Public Theater's annual Public Works project, which has professional actors performing alongside community members from all five boroughs of New York City. Three: It's the final show in the outdoor Delacorte Theater, which will afterwards be closed for an 18-month renovation.
And four: It features a female Prospero, played by Goldsberry. And when she spoke to Playbill, Goldsberry was still working through on what her take on the role was, but motherhood has been on her mind—not just because her kids are in the show. This Prospero is a mother, someone who had experienced injustice and who was a survivor. And because of that trauma, Prospero is protective (perhaps overly so) of Miranda (played by newcomer Naomi Pierre).
“When you are a Black mother of a Black child, or the mother of any child, and you’re looking at the world they have inherited…and, sometimes, how little possibility you can see ahead for them,” Goldsberry explains. “That’s Prospero’s situation: Having this amazing child and having so little to offer them. And trying to create something at any cost to give this child a future. That is the journey. And that's real, right now in our lives, in this world that we live in."
To Goldsberry, Prospero actually has three children in the story: Miranda, Caliban, and Ariel. In the original text, the latter two are spirits who Prospero has enslaved to do his bidding. In Goldsberry's interpretation, the spirits (played by Theo Stockman and Jo Lampert) are children that Prospero has adopted, and she hasn't done the best job of mothering them.
"I love seeing this character as flawed," says Goldsberry. "Like so many of us, she handles all three of her children and uses all three of her children differently. Her journey is figuring out how to really, truly see and care for the future of all three of them—as opposed to just the one."
Goldsberry is drawing from her own life, because while her son Benjamin (who is 14) is biological, her daughter Brielle (10) is adopted. And to her, Prospero's arc is realizing that all of the beings under her care deserve love, even if they are not blood-related.
"Everybody's children need to thrive, not just our own children," she explains. "That is a lesson that's hugely important. And I'm actually distilling that in that my mind in those words in this interview. But I believe that very strongly: our own children are not safe if we do not recognize our responsibility to everybody's children." She then adds, with emphasis, "No one is served by inequity."
During the interview, Goldsberry said the word "community" multiple times. The cast begins every rehearsal with a "community circle" where they're all encouraged to share a "whisper"—a story from their family history. For an industry veteran like Goldsberry, working with this group of new performers, including her own children—all discovering the joy of theatre for the first time—has been invigorating for her.
"Looking into the eyes of these community members, their joy is so pure and so beautiful. I'm reminded every single time I look at them, how awesome it is to get to create a show, to get to put on a show with people," she marvels. "We do forget, in our focus to be great, in our focus to be well-received...you forget that first sheer joy and love of just making something with people." She then adds. "It's the best gift. It's like being re-gifted. Your initial joy."
Something else that Goldsberry has been doing in tandem with rehearsing for The Tempest is picketing—before rehearsals, she joins the SAG-AFTRA picket lines. The union has been striking, alongside the Writers Guild of America, for fair wages since July. Goldsberry's Girls5Eva was cancelled on Peacock, but then Netflix purchased it and the third season finished filming before the strike.
In accordance with union rules, Goldsberry could not say anything about the show itself, other than her pride in season three. But she expressed how important it was for the producers and the unions to find a way forward that benefits everyone. "We at Girls5Eva are so grateful for the ability of Netflix and Peacock to work together to create a season three for our show," she says. "We find that just miraculous. And we are at the front lines in this negotiation, looking for ways to remedy a lot of the structures that do not serve us, and are not going to be able to carry us forward."
So while the strike is ongoing with no end in sight, Goldsberry is especially grateful for the theatre—which is providing an outlet for her artistry during this time, and letting her work and spend time with her family. It's been a dream job for Goldsberry. Though she adds that she doesn't expect her kids to pursue entertainment professionally: "The focus is really building a community, and having such pride in what you're doing. And pride in what you're sharing with all of the people that will come see it—I think whatever they grow up into and want to do, these lessons will carry them through."