Danai Gurira takes on Shakespeare's Richard III in Central Park Guirira said it was interesting to explore "toxic masculinity" as a perpetrator instead of an object - and that the role brought up a lot of questions.

Why it matters that Danai Gurira is taking on Richard III

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AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The villainous monarch in Shakespeare's play "Richard III" has been portrayed by actors ranging from Laurence Olivier...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RICHARD III")

LAURENCE OLIVIER: (As Richard III) Now is the winter of our discontent.

RASCOE: ...To Ian McKellen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RICHARD III")

IAN MCKELLEN: (As Richard III) Made glorious summer by this sun of York.

RASCOE: And now at New York's Shakespeare in the Park, the lead role is being played by Danai Gurira, who's best known for her roles in Marvel films and television's "The Walking Dead."

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "RICHARD III")

DANAI GURIRA: (As Richard III) And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house in the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

RASCOE: Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Danai Gurira may be a classically trained actress, but when she got the call asking if she'd like to play Richard III this summer, she says she was surprised.

GURIRA: I just remember just laughing and finding it really thrilling and scary. And it felt right, but it was nothing I would ever have thought of myself.

LUNDEN: Gurira says it took her two months to say yes. But once she started preparing, she got very excited.

GURIRA: It's an interesting thing for a woman to get to explore toxic masculinity this way because usually we're just, like, the receivers of it. But stepping into it and exploring it from the inside has been very fascinating to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "RICHARD III")

GURIRA: (As Richard III) Was ever a woman in this humor wooed? Was ever a woman in this humor won? I'll have her, but I'll not keep her long.

Is there a different experience the audience has when they hear misogyny come through a female body? Does it highlight it more? Does it sharpen it in terms of how grotesque it is? And I hope it does.

LUNDEN: London-based critic Matt Wolf says women cast as male characters in Shakespeare has been around for a long time. Sarah Bernhardt famously played Hamlet in 1899. But more recently, Fiona Shaw, Glenda Jackson and Ruth Negga have played roles written for men.

MATT WOLF: I think a lot of it is about redressing that balance, kind of giving the women their crack at the canon.

LUNDEN: Richard III famously talks about his physical disabilities, as do other characters describing him. Director Robert O'Hara says there's a history of actors using devices to play disability.

ROBERT O’HARA: People putting a hump on their back or people strapping their arms down or sliding their foot across the stage. And I was like, I want to open up the conversation and say, if we're going to talk about disabled actors, why don't we open up the entire play? Any actor can play any of these parts, and I think that opened up the story as well.

LUNDEN: So while Danai Gurira plays Richard without any outward disabilities, the stage is populated with a diverse group of actors. Queen Anne is in a wheelchair. The Duchess of York is deaf and uses sign language. The actor playing Richmond has cerebral palsy.

O’HARA: Richard's otherness is his Blackness in this world and also the fact that it's being played by a woman. And everyone else is dealing with their own sense of projection onto Richard, right? Richard is the narrator. So once again, we're all hearing this story from Richard's point of view.

LUNDEN: Gurira studied the history of dictators and despots to prepare for the role. She says Richard develops an intimate relationship with the audience. In his frequent soliloquies, he confesses all the murder and mayhem he's planning.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "RICHARD III")

GURIRA: (As Richard III) I must marry my brother Edward's daughter or else my kingdom stands on brittle glass. Murder her brothers and marry her - an uncertain way of gain, but I am in so far in blood that sin will pluck on sin.

It becomes a really fascinating exploration because it really is saying, you're coming with me and guess what? You're kind of complicit because you're having a good time, aren't you? And I think that does reflect on, how do these guys even get into power? Like, somebody says OK. A lot of people say OK.

LUNDEN: But not everyone says OK to Richard. The female characters, like Queen Margaret, consistently call Richard out on his misdeeds, says director Robert O'Hara.

O’HARA: When you have the women essentially speaking to another woman who is playing a man, there's something quite interesting because when you see the relief of all the men standing around doing absolutely nothing but enabling this person, it becomes sort of shockingly realistic in today's world.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "RICHARD III")

SHARON WASHINGTON: (As Queen Margaret) Thou slander of thy heavy mother’s womb. Thou loathed issue of thy father’s loins. Thou rag of honor thou detested...

GURIRA: (As Richard III) Margaret.

WASHINGTON: (As Queen Margaret) Richard.

LUNDEN: Ultimately, Richard's downfall comes swiftly because for all his ambition, he's unequipped to govern and is left without any allies.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "RICHARD III")

GURIRA: (As Richard III) A horse. A horse. My kingdom for a horse.

LUNDEN: Robert O'Hara says it's been fun to see a charismatic actress like Danai Gurira play the villain on stage.

O’HARA: It's not just the domain of sort of white cis men to, like, play kings and queens, right? And I think when you put that body on stage, it changes the chemistry of the story, which is what makes Shakespeare a classic, is that it still works no matter who's in the space, and that you can sort of, like, stretch it and pull it. And it's still "Richard III." And that's what we're excited for people to say.

LUNDEN: "Richard III" will be playing in Central Park for free through July 17.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUDWIG GORANSSON'S "SPACESHIP BUGATTI")

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