Jo Reed: From the National Endowment for the Arts, this is Art Works, I’m Josephine Reed.
Saheem Ali: You know, the characters in “Hamlet” speak to the audience in a confidante type of way. Like it’s almost as if when Hamlet’s speaking to the audience he’s imagining that they are someone who he is confiding in, who he trusts, who he’s able to reveal himself to. James takes it a step further. James actually acknowledges them as audience members. So it’s really delightful because we all know we’re sitting in a theater. We all know that we’re pretending. There’s a suspension of disbelief, and so when you have a suspension of disbelief interrogated and pierced in a fun way-- it’s delightful.
Jo Reed: That is the Associate Artistic Director of The Public Theater Saheem Ali talking about the Pultizer Prize-winning play “Fat Ham”—which was written by James Ijames and directed by Saheem at The Public. The production was co-produced by the National Black Theater where Saheem and James collaborated previously on “Kill Move Paradise.” Now, while “Fat Ham” may have been inspired by “Hamlet” I can promise you it is unlike any “Hamlet” you’ve ever seen. Say goodbye to castles in Denmark and get ready to settle into a North Carolina backyard where Juicy who is Black and Queer is readying the place for his mother’s wedding barbeque party. It is an evening of theater that is deeply thoughtful, funny, and surprising, as brilliantly directed as it is written and acted. In fact, it’s run is so successful, The Public has extended it through July 17.
But then, Saheem Ali is a director who knows how to surprise thoughtfully. During the pandemic, he created a “Richard II” for radio led by Black actors that also interrogated white privilege in theater. After the pandemic, Ali reopened The Delacorte Theater—The Public’s home for Free Shakespeare in the Park with “Merry Wives” Jocelyn Bioh’s retelling of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” set in a Washington Heights community of African immigrants with Shakespeare’s text spoken with Ghanian and Nigerian accents. Saheem Ali believes fiercely that Shakespeare—indeed, all theater belongs to everyone. Born and raised in Nairobi he was accustomed to seeing Shakespeare portrayed by Black and Brown people. That was the norm. And since moving to the United States, he remains committed to directing work that centers on people of color in community, including Shakespeare…which brings us back to “Fat Ham”…a play that has a real kinship to Hamlet but also creates its own world. Saheem Ali explains….
Saheem Ali: It’s very much a riff on the original. James Ijames who is a playwright, someone who I love, we’ve worked together before, he’s a chameleonic playwright who every time he writes a play it comes out in a completely different form and structure. So when I first read this particular script I was just so excited to see something that had taken Shakespeare and made it feel contemporary and alive, familiar yet different. I always strive in my own Shakespeare work to find ways to make it feel present and contemporary and so something that feels vibrant and unique with it, and it was just delightful to see a playwright who had done that already and to be invited to the fold after the fact. So it’s a riff on “Hamlet” that has a lot that it borrows from the original but a lot that it then takes on and becomes its own and has its own identity.
Jo Reed: Boy does it ever. <laughs> How did you approach the play? What was your point of entry to it as the director?
Saheem Ali: As with any script, as I read it I’m trying to figure out if it’s a world that I’m interested in, if there are characters that I believe in and I’m excited by. If it’s a way of telling a story that I personally haven’t quite done yet and that I haven’t seen on stage. I’m always looking for something that to me feels like it’s pushing the form or at least pushing my own experience and I’m not repeating myself in some way. So this felt like all those things, so in reading the script I started to envision a world that I wanted it to exist in and that the voices started to become clear in terms of what tone are we in, what sense of realism are we in or surrealism, and so every time I read a script I’m looking for those unique markers that draw me in.
Jo Reed: “Fat Ham” certainly interrogates masculinity and its potential for violence and toxicity and homophobia, but man, it really shows a great deal of joy too.
Saheem Ali: Yeah, and that’s what I love about how James has tackled this particular piece, because the original “Hamlet,” I mean, there’s some joy <laughs> in there, but it is mostly tragic, it is mostly pensive. It is mostly cerebral by design. And so what James has done is taken those elements but counterbalanced them with, as you say, joy and hope and optimism, and as proof that you can take stories that are one thing and if you do it the right way, if you approach it the right way, if you have a real subjective interest and the piece aligns with the bones of it then you can make something new and unique from something old. I mean, Shakespeare did this all the time. He took other people’s stories and he made them his own. So James is kind of taking a page out of Shakespeare’s book by taking Shakespeare’s stories, the stories that Shakespeare borrowed and making it his own.
Jo Reed: How do you work with the playwright James in this instance and the cast? How does that collaboration work for you? Are you comfortable asking a playwright, for example, to perhaps, you know, change a line, or how does that work?
Saheem Ali: Yeah. So in my early conversations with a playwright like James I really want to know what’s important to them. Why they wrote the play, when they wrote it, what they hope the play will say, and hopefully that’s aligned with my own thoughts and we find a space that we have a shared vocabulary about what excites us about this world and why we think the story is important. So it really does begin with the playwright because it’s their piece that they have crafted and so it’s my job as a translator, as a midwife of sorts, to help birth it and translate it, and so when James is in the room with me with the actors I do ask a playwright as well to share with the actors why they wrote the piece and why it’s important to them, and then as the process evolves playwrights like James are really responsive to what the actors bring because, you know, in every version of the creative’s process there’s what it’s our head, <laughs> and then there’s what it’s like--
Jo Reed: Yes. <laughs>
Saheem Ali: --in three dimension, when there’s people, when there’s humans who come to collaborate. So that’s why I love the theater so much, because at every level you are relying on other people to collaborate with you to make something. There’s no version of this where you can do it completely on your own, and so the actors bring their experience, their identity, their proclivities, and James responds to that. He’ll adjust a line if an actor’s having trouble with it. He’ll listen to a suggestion that an actor has an incorporate or fold it into something that makes sense for him. So at every step of the process I’m there to help guide this thing that exists on the page and then in the brain and then in three dimension.
Jo Reed: This is a play with <laughs> some amount of comic moments, and like your production of “Merry Wives,” which is, you know, full-out funny. But I really am very <laughs> interested in the challenge of getting comedy right, which I know is not easy.
Saheem Ali: No, it’s not, and it has to start on the page. For me, something has to be funny. I have to read it and laugh, and with Jocelyn Bioh’s work, with James’s work, it’s a humor that I get, and so that’s the first ingredient. It’s it’ll never be funny on stage if I don’t find it funny first. And then in the casting process, it’s really important to find actors who gravitate with not only the pathos in the piece, not only with the dramatic aspects in the piece, but also with the humor. You know, humor’s very subjective. Not everyone thinks the same things are funny. Not everyone agrees that the same things are funny. So casting is really crucial because I have to find actors who are able to embody James’s particular kind of humor, and then you need to allow the humor to happen in the moments where it does but then to allow pathos and to allow real emotional depth to also exist when it does. So it’s finding the right people to bring into the room but it’s also crafting it in a way that feels truthful, and then, of course, when you’re in the rehearsal process, you can think something is funny. I can think it’s funny, the actors can think it’s funny, but the true test is the audience, so <laughs> those early previews when an audience is experiencing for the first time, that is the litmus test. If they don’t think it’s funny, it doesn’t matter how funny I think it is or how funny an actor does, and so the audience is always, always, but especially in comedy, is the essential ingredient to figuring out if something works, and it could be the line itself that isn’t funny. It could be something technical like, you know, an actor facing a certain direction or giving a line a certain inflection, can make a line funny or not, you know. So--
Jo Reed: Yeah. <laughs>
Saheem Ali: --it’s really like technical prowess, comedic timing and just essentially something that was funny to begin with, <laughs> which hopefully you’re working with.
Jo Reed: I’d like you to talk just a little bit about casting because with the piece, especially-- well, with any play, but especially with a piece like “Fat Ham,” you know, I think seven actors, that is one tight ensemble and it has to be because if one piece doesn’t really fit, there goes the play.
Saheem Ali: Absolutely, absolutely. You know, there’s a chemistry that you’re hoping for when you cast a show, and because of the way in which the structure of the casting process, you know, you’re making a guess, because you never get to have multiple people in the room to get to know whether they’re going to work together well. So you’re, you know, as a director you’re making a calculated guess and you’re trying to tell like personalities, if they’re going to match, but also chemistry between actors, and hopefully the actors who you’re picking not only have a great sense of, a command of comedy, of language, of skill, but are human beings who you want to <laughs> be in the room with, you know.
Jo Reed: Yes.
Saheem Ali: That’s also part of the audition process. Like, “Do I want to be with this person for four weeks in a room, and with this particular material?” So it’s really subjective, it’s really personal and it’s really speculative <laughs> because you’re trying to imagine this person with other people in a room, and sometimes you get it right and sometimes you don’t. And I think with this particular process we did find lightning in a bottle, because this cast works so well together. They have such great alchemy, and they’re delightful, both to work with and I think the audience really feels the love and the joy that these actors are having in making this play.
Jo Reed: I certainly did as an audience member. And the fourth wall gets broken in “Fat Ham” to great effect, I think, but of course. You know, Shakespeare has a lot of soliloquys.
Saheem Ali: Absolutely.
Jo Reed: You know, who’s Hamlet talking to?
Saheem Ali: Yes. Yeah.
Jo Reed: <laughs>
Saheem Ali: It’s a device that’s definitely appropriated from Shakespeare, and James does his own particular spin with it. You know, the characters in “Hamlet” speak to the audience in a confidante type of way. Like it’s almost as if when Hamlet’s speaking to the audience he’s imagining that they are someone who he is confiding in, who he trusts, who he’s able to reveal himself to. You know, James takes it a step further. James actually acknowledges them as audience members, and other characters get to do that for other characters. So it’s really delightful because an audience loved being recognized, loves being acknowledged, especially if there’s a sense of play with it. So James definitely uses that-- he loves the theater so much and so you can feel that in how he breaks down that fourth wall and invites the characters in the play to interact with him as characters in a knowing way. Because we all know that. We all know <laughs> we’re sitting in a theater. We all know that we’re pretending like, you know-- there’s a suspension of disbelief, and so when you have a suspension of disbelief interrogated and pierced in a fun way it’s delightful.
Jo Reed: Oh, absolutely. And I also really appreciated Tedra, who plays his mother, the Gertrude character.
Saheem Ali: Yes, yes. Nikki Crawford is the actor.
Jo Reed: When she addresses the audience with really kind of a stink eye, like, “You think you know me?”
Saheem Ali: <laughs>
Jo Reed: “You’re judging me?” And it was so refreshing because we always, always judge Gertrude and no one--
Saheem Ali: Completely.
Jo Reed: --understands her.
Saheem Ali: And so you feel caught because you’re like, “Oh, yes. I actually was judging her and she knows that I’m judging her.” Ooh. So it’s, you know...
Jo Reed: Exactly. <laughs>
Saheem Ali: For me, a sense of surprise is so important in the theater. You want to feel like you don’t know what’s going to happen next. You want to feel like anything can happen, and so that moment in particular, once you know that she knows that you’re there and she knows what you’re thinking, anything’s possible after that, you know. So really, it’s not only exciting as a moment but I really feel like it sets the audience up for a ride because, you know, that you really do feel like anything can happen.
Jo Reed: Right. Exactly. <laughs> Which it does. I’m not talking about the end at all, because it’s just so miraculous. People just need to see the play. You’ve directed Shakespeare many times in many iterations, and “Richard II” during the height of the pandemic and in the middle of the racial reckoning, you were in production right after George Floyd, and you reopened The Delacorte with a very boisterous “Merry Wives.” And I’d like to be a little bit general and then specific. In general, why do you think you returned to Shakespeare? What do those plays allow you to do as a director? How do they allow you to tell the stories you want to tell?
Saheem Ali: I would say Shakespeare scratches the itch that I have of working on text where I don’t have to put on my dramaturgical hat. I love working on new plays. I love working on material and with writers who are doing something that hasn’t been done, that they haven’t done, that I haven’t done, and so there’s a great excitement in trying to figure out, “Does this work?” “Is this play going to work?” “Are these characters interesting? Is this world exciting?” and with Shakespeare, I don’t have to worry about that as much because these plays have existed. These plays work. These plays have survived the test of time, and he’s also masterful at understanding the human condition and understanding what makes us tick, understanding our fears, our joys, what makes us hurt, what makes us angry. I just watched the “Macbeth” on Broadway last night and, again, this a story that I’ve seen before all of a sudden being inhabited by actors who I hadn’t seen do it, by a director who I hadn’t seen tackle it, and it’s exciting all over again because the bones of it are so strong. The journey of it is so bulletproof that you’re enjoying experiencing it again because what these characters are experiencing will never grow old. It won’t, and so for me, with Shakespeare in particular, it’s heightened language. We speak English to communicate but then these characters speak in a heightened sense because what they’re expressing is heightened and poetic in their mode of communication, and so I keep returning to these plays because I think there’s a way to make them feel relevant and exciting in the contemporary moment. Also as a director of color I’m always looking for ways to put actors of color at the center of these pieces, because I grew up in Kenya and the first Shakespeare that I was in was “Romeo and Juliet,” and everyone in it was a person of color. So my entry point for Shakespeare was seeing brown and black actors inhabit these roles, and when I came to America all of a sudden there were only white actors on stage, or if there was an actor of color they were peripheral or in the ensemble. They weren’t at the center, and that just felt like such a disservice to me because these are great parts and we have great actors of color who are able to inhabit these worlds and express themselves and, you know, seeing Ruth Negga as Lady Macbeth last night. Oh, my goodness. She was incredible, you know, and thank God we live in a time now where that’s even possible. So for me, I returned to Shakespeare because I believe so deeply that these plays are important. I believe that they belong to everyone. We are all invited to Shakespeare. We’re so past the point of all these obstacles to feeling invited to Shakespeare. Being British, being elitist, being white. Those don’t exist anymore. They’re all figments of people’s imagination, and so for me, I return to these plays because I love them so much and I think that there’s an opportunity to breathe new life into them and to put actors of color at the center of them.
Jo Reed: Well, let’s talk just a little bit more specifically about “Richard II.” It was produced during the pandemic as a radio play. It began very close after the death of George Floyd, and that play really aligned with the times we were living through in that summer of 2020. So can you tell me how you opened that play up to encompass the struggle of our times.
Saheem Ali: Yeah. It was a real challenge because we were preparing to do that production in The Delacorte, and then of course COVID happened, and then we pivoted to a radio play and it still had the same ensemble and world that I had constructed for The Delacorte, so we kept the cast. But then in the midst of the pandemic and George Floyd being murdered a week before first rehearsal, everything changed. All of a sudden I wasn’t sure what I was doing <laughs> in the world anymore, because George Floyd’s murder revealed this real, toxic cancer in our country that really became acutely, acutely present and all of a sudden I was asking myself questions about the theater, “What am I doing with my life? Should I really be doing this? Should I be bringing like actors of color, black actors specifically, into doing Shakespeare?” Like, “Why does this feel irrelevant or important anymore?” and so I started by calling a couple of the actors who were in the piece, John Douglas Thompson, Miriam Hyman and Andre Holland, all black actors, and just asking them, “Hey, in light of the world that we’re in now--” this was the week before first rehearsal, when George Floyd had just been murdered,-- I said, “Do you still want to do this? Should we still be doing this?” and unequivocally the answer from all three of them was, “Absolutely. Absolutely. For the chance to inhabit these roles, for the chance to gather in community, for the chance to just shed a light on what it means to be a black person in America telling a story,” and so that gave me courage to continue on with the process and I spoke very openly and honestly to the cast on the first day of rehearsal on Zoom, you know, and again, I wasn’t sure how to handle this on Zoom, because I’ve been in the world before when catastrophic events have happened. And so I was really nervous about creating a space where we could talk honestly and openly and vulnerably with people we’re meeting for the first time virtually. But it became a really, really beautiful space of healing, of truth, and we decided in that moment that we’re going to dedicate the episodes to the Black Lives Matter movement, and we decided in that moment also to create these companion pieces where these actors of color, these black actors specifically, who are in this play, were going to talk about the relationships to Shakespeare, which have been really fraught and complicated and damaging in some regards because of how they’ve been treated as black actors doing Shakespeare. And so what we were able to really lean into, the complicated world that we were in as a result of George Floyd being murdered, and the summer of Black Lives Matter really becoming a rallying anthem, and fee that into a process in a way that felt truthful and honest.
Jo Reed: Yeah. It was deeply moving. It was horrifying to hear Andre Holland, for example, talk about the ways he was told he needed to elevate himself in order to play Shakespeare.
Saheem Ali: Yeah. Yeah.
Jo Reed: Agh. And of course it would--
Saheem Ali: And [ph?] tell you--
Jo Reed: --it would never be Hamlet. It would only be Horatio. On a good day.
Saheem Ali: Exactly. That he would never have the opportunity to do that, and since then I have heard at least two playwrights-- I’ll say, okay, Jocelyn Bioh and James Ijames. Jocelyn Bioh did the “Merry Wives” adaptation and James, who has written this play, were two people who were told, “You will never do Shakespeare. You will never be able to because of how you sound,” you know, which is completely not true. Completely. So with Jocelyn we created this piece where people in their African dialects speak Shakespeare, and in “Fat Ham,” this is a black, Southern American dialect speaking some Shakespeare text. But to understand the harm that has been done and the work that we have to do to eradicate that. So this is why I will always feel so passionately about this and will continue in whatever way, shape or form to continue to work on Shakespeare and to make him feel, again, like everyone is welcome.
Jo Reed: Well, “Merry Wives” was exactly <laughs> where I was going next, because as you said, adapted by Jocelyn Bioh, set in Washington Heights, peopled by folks who have immigrated from Africa, so the African Diaspora was front and center. The specificity was extraordinary and it was pure joy.
Saheem Ali: Thank you. Thank you. Yeah. This is my season of joy, you know.
Saheem Ali: Talking to the staff at The Public, we were talking about, “What do we want to open The Delacorte with?” and people really responded, the staff really responded, by saying, “We want something lively. Want something to celebrate the fact that we’re in the other end of this pandemic. We want something to make us laugh,” and so I chose “Merry Wives” for that reason, and then I invited Jocelyn Bioh because I wanted to elevate and celebrate a community of immigrants in New York. I wanted to make it a New York story, but I wanted to say, “This community that lives just north of Central Park, you know, a walking distance from The Delacorte, has never been celebrated in this institution on this stage,” and as I read “Merry Wives,” I completely heard those voices speaking those lines and they felt funny to me. <laughs> Again, it’s back to that thing of it’s got to be subjectively funny. I have to feel it’s funny, otherwise I can’t truthfully build a world without that. So I heard Shakespeare’s text in that dialect and I remember when I first met with Jocelyn, to pitch it to her. She said, “Wait. So you don’t want me to rewrite it. You want them to say <laughs> the Shakespeare text with the dialect?” and I said, “Yes, absolutely. I think it’s going to work,” and she’s so smart and she came in and she injected like a sense of humor that’s hers, a sense of structure that’s hers, and was able to be on par. I mean, it was really a summer of William Shakespeare and Jocelyn Bioh in Central Park doing “Merry Wives.”
Jo Reed: Oh, my. And it worked so beautifully, and the reality is we do not know how those actors sounded during Shakespeare’s time. We don’t know what accents they had.
Saheem Ali: No. No, we have no clue. We have no clue.
Jo Reed: We have no clue.
Saheem Ali: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, and so-- and the-- I think I-- what I’m-- what I keep trying to prove is that this text can survive that kind of interrogation. It can survive like sounding many different way. There is no one way that it should sound. I mean--
Jo Reed: Exactly.
Saheem Ali: --it’s hard to believe that it’s just a few decades ago that Joe Papp first proposed that actors in America could speak Shakespeare with an America accent, you know. That was not so long ago, so I’m excited for the opportunities to just continue to move that conversation forward.
Jo Reed: And as you mentioned in “Merry Wives,” <laughs> reopened theater, The Delacorte, after the lockdown, which, of course, was so freighted and fraught.
Saheem Ali: Yeah.
Jo Reed: And exciting and exhilarating, and there’s a wonderful documentary about it called “Reopening Night,” which I highly recommend, and putting on a show in an outdoor theater is difficult. Putting it on after you haven’t been doing theater for a year and a half is even hardest, and then the weather was not your friend.
Saheem Ali: No, it sure wasn’t.
Saheem Ali: Whoo, that was a rough summer. We went from extreme heat to extreme cold and rain within the span of eight hours, you know. It was a real rollercoaster with the weather last summer. Yeah. <laughs>
Jo Reed: Granted, this is the documentary. Who knows what gets edited out. I have no idea. But honest to God, Saheem, I’m watching you and you seemed very calm, <laughs> and I’m thinking, “I would really be a nervous wreck.”
Jo Reed: “How does he do that?” <laughs>
Saheem Ali: That is like-- that is a God-given superpower that I have.
Jo Reed: I was going to ask you exactly that question. Is that your superpower? <laughs>
Saheem Ali: Yeah. It’s in my DNA. If I believe in the process, if I believe in the people I’m with, and especially in the process of making theater, it’s not always going to go the way you plan. There are going to be obstacles, there are going to be issues to deal with. There’re going to be complications and you just have to enter it expecting and embracing those things, so I had no idea the extent <laughs> to which it would be. Last summer, that was pretty extreme, but I think just my approach has always been, you know, “Let’s figure it out. What can we do? Here are the options. Let’s make the best choice that we can make in this moment.” So the process of making theater, I think, just demands you to be nimble and roll with the punches, as they say.
Jo Reed: <laughs> They’ve been saying it a lot since 2020.
Jo Reed: Well, the night of the first preview you really hadn’t even done a run-through yet from start to finish and the audience is going to come and the heavens open up.
Saheem Ali: Yes.
Jo Reed: And it is pouring rain.
Saheem Ali: Yes.
Jo Reed: And I just have to say, there was a lot of moments in that documentary where I was very teary eyed, but when they went back and you saw all those people in line with their umbrellas, <laughs> waiting to go in, you know, audience members, and sit in the damn rain to watch a show, I burst out crying.
Saheem Ali: Yeah.
Jo Reed: I’m going to cry now. I’m a New Yorker. I grew up going to that theater. It made me just love New York and love theater and it was so moving. About the power of-- what is it about this theater, about this thing that just draws people?
Saheem Ali: I think it’s-- ah, I think it’s that, Oskar (Eustice) always talks about like the culture belongs to everyone, that we’re all invited, and that is baked into the wood <laughs> that holds The Delacorte up, you know. And at The Public, we believe in that so much. We care so much about making it the best possible production and keeping those tickets free, and it’s something that we’ve come to rely on almost and we should-- we take for granted in the best possible way, because it exists every summer. It should exist every summer, and you feel. You feel the love and the care and the passion of every single person who does anything to do with those productions, and then the audience as well. I’ve been to The Delacorte many times. That was the first production that I ever saw in New York. I came as a poor college student from Boston on the Chinatown bus. I couldn’t afford to see anything. I stood in line at The Delacorte and the first show that I saw in New York was “Twelfth Night” at The Delacorte, and you just-- you feel the majesty of the space. You feel that you’re in the heart of the city. I think there’s something cosmic even perhaps <laughs> about the location--
Jo Reed: Hm, yeah.
Saheem Ali: --of that theater in the heart of New York surrounded by all that greenery, and then, of course, you have like some of the greatest words in the English language being spoken, and being spoken in ways that are not pretentious, that are not, like, you know, elitist, that are present. You feel like you’re being spoken to as a human being like today, and so this was my first time directing there, my first time experiencing the audience-- because usually when I go I just go and I sit in the audience to watch. And I have never encountered a more generous, enthusiastic, excited audience as I do at The Delacorte. It is incredible how much love there is, and they will sit there with umbrellas and not budge in the pouring rain until someone says, “I’m so sorry, everyone. You have to leave The Delacorte. It’s no longer safe.”
Saheem Ali: You know, and it’s so hard to make those calls because people really want to be there. They want to endure, but then it becomes a safety issue. You know, what if there’s lightning? What if the stage is too slippery for the actors? So accommodations have to be made, but the audience at The Delacorte is the most loyal that I’ve ever experienced anywhere.
Jo Reed: Yeah. Amen.
Saheem Ali: Amen.
Jo Reed: You’re creating a body of work that explores queer issues and not just challenges that faces people of color, but you really work, as I’ve mentioned a couple of times, so much with the joy that’s embedded in those communities of color as well. Not a naïve joy, not in apolitical joy, but a joy that is there nonetheless.
Saheem Ali: Yeah, and it’s purely because those are my own identities too, as a person of color and as a queer person. I got tired of seeing shows where people of color were experiencing nothing but subjugation and torture and hardship, whether it was a person of color in America or an immigrant coming here, and the same went for queer stories. Like I’m tired of seeing kids on stage suffering because they’re queer or challenged or fraught because they’re queer. Yes, those stories exist. Yes, they are valid. Yes, they deserve to be told, but they have been told. Again and again. And I have seen them enough times to serve my lifetime, you know. So it’s a real personal mission for me just to show the other side of the story. To show the hope, to show the optimism, and to do it in a way, as you’re saying, that feels genuine and truthful, and a story that feels dynamic enough so that it’s not just all roses from start to finish <laughs>, you know.
Jo Reed: <laughs> Exactly.
Saheem Ali: It’s not just laughter from start to finish. That there is a bottom. There is weight, there is substance. Every play that I do, even “Merry Wives,” like that we managed to bring a queer relationship into that and a real family dynamic that’s very familiar, of a family of immigrants, a family of color, not accepting a child’s choice at first and then coming around, and I want that story. I want that story to be true. Whether it’s going to move someone to think differently or whether it’s going to give a person who’s going through it themselves some hope for a different outcome, I want that. I believe that every time you do a play you’re putting energy out into the world. You’re actually presenting life as you hope it could be, life as you think it is, life as you care about, and I think very, very deeply about each project that I do because it’s so important to me to be putting out the right kind of energy into the world, and so joy is a part of that for me. It is definitely-- it’s part of my life experience. It’s what I want, it’s what I want to feel out in the world, in addition to all the other things that are important to touch on, and so that informs the stories that I do that have various intersections with queer identity, with POC identity, with the notion of being black in America. And I also don’t want to repeat myself, so every time I’m looking for a different way <laughs> of doing it that doesn’t feel repetitive but feels dynamic and different enough. So I hope to continue that trend.
Jo Reed: In 2020, in August, you were named Associate Artistic Director at The Public Theater.
Saheem Ali: Yes.
Jo Reed: Congratulations.
Saheem Ali: Thank you. Thank you.
Jo Reed: Yeah. Few years later, but still. <laughs>
Saheem Ali: Yeah. <laughs>
Jo Reed: Tell me, what does that job entail?
Saheem Ali: Yeah. So as Associate Artistic Director-- we have three Associate Artistic Directors of The Public, and my particular purview is to be the resident director, and so I’m responsible for having conversations on the artistic level about what our season looks like, what plays we’re doing, what artists we’re inviting and how those relate to the mission of The Public, and then I’m also responsible for bringing in my own projects that I’m interested in working on. So it’s a really beautiful invitation to not only participate in conversations about what we’re doing artistically but to have a place for me to do the shows that I want to do. So I get to pitch productions that I’m interested in and writers that I’m interested in, so inviting Jocelyn, for example, or James, who we’d worked with together, bringing him in to do his play “Fat Ham,” those were directly as a result of my position there. So I get to be both at the table where the conversations are happening about the artistic process, but also get to be at rehearsal for pieces that I’m interested in exploring.
Jo Reed: I’m curious what you might’ve learned or are continuing to learn from the pandemic, from the racial reckoning we’re still grappling with, that you can bring to your job as the Associate Artistic Director at The Public.
Saheem Ali: Yeah. So I came in at that moment right after George Floyd was murdered, so what we refer to as the racial reckoning, but also the theater really considering the ways in which it has been complicit in white supremacy and in racism in America, and so I was excited to engage in that conversation because I had been thinking about that already for many years. I’d been engaged in ways in which, just by virtue of the projects that I was working on and the artists that I was collaborating with, I had taken on the responsibility of making sure that the rooms and the projects that I’m in are fully aware of the systems of oppression that exist within the theater. And so the opportunity to come to The Public and to bring my experience but also my particular way of moving through the world was exciting to me because these are complicated questions, these are thorny issues that are both visible and invisible, and so it’s easy to deal with the visible ones but the invisible ones tend to be more difficult because they’re so kind of nuanced. And so at The Public we’re engaged in cultural transformation, which means that we are really examining all of our systems and our practices just to make sure that we are considering all the ways in which antiracism should work on an institutional level, and so I’m engaged with that at The Public. But also I feel very fortunate because The Public has already been so present and engaging in these conversations even prior to me coming, you know. The Public was one of the first theaters that was engaging in what was called blind casting, Colorblind casting. Sorry. Where you are casting an actor regardless of their race. In the days of Joe Papp, and then that evolved, of course, from colorblind to color conscious, because it’s not about just casting as if you don’t see people’s race. We do see race. We do take that into consideration. So how are the decisions that you’re making about casting, how are they conscious and not blind? How are you actually considering the statement that you’re making by the ways in which you are casting the production? And so I feel very fortunate to have joined an institution that was already engaged in these difficult conversations and then just to see how I could help move them forward.
Jo Reed: And what about in terms of ensuring the audience is as diverse as the work, as the performers? We talked about The Delacorte, which is free, but there are so many factors at play, including economics.
Saheem Ali: Absolutely. That is the challenge with the free model, because yes, it’s free, but you have to have the luxury of the time to go and stand there and wait for a ticket. You have to feel like you’re invited and you’re welcome to the place, and those two things don’t always happen, right. So we worked very hard during “Merry Wives” to ensure that the community that was being celebrated on stage was also able to be in the seats of The Delacorte watching the production, and it continues to be something that we consider. We have what’s called the Mobile Unit, the Mobile Shakespeare Unit at The Public, so, you know, the assumption for The Delacorte is that it’s free but you can come to us. So the Mobile Unit is-- we are going to come to you. So it travels to all the five boroughs performing in community centers, in prisons, in shelters. And so The Public is especially just thinking about the ways in which, yes, if we take away the economic barrier, if we keep ticket prices as low as possible, what are the other ways in not only going to reach audiences that may not be able to come but also how to make them feel like they’re invited, that they’re welcome, that this is for them? You know, there are just so many obstacles to communities feeling like that this is for them, like they’re going to get to either see themselves on stage or that walking into the doors of The Public Theater is a place that they’re able to come in and are invited. So it continues to be something that we’re just trying to be better at.
Jo Reed: And finally, what brings you the most joy in your work?
Saheem Ali: The ability to create a room where everyone feels safe and brave and welcome that brings me joy, because creating that space, that is not accidental. To create that space, it has to be intentional. You have to set the bar at a place where everyone understands that that’s what’s important in the process, and so for me to see actors feel that, to see the crew of the production feel that, that brings me joy, because I know then when the audience comes in, they’re the last people who are going to be invited to that but you have to have built it from the ground up, and so it really brings me joy when I feel that I have successfully been able to invite the people who believe in that as well but also to cultivate a culture where that is present.
Jo Reed: Okay, Saheem, thank you. And thank you for your wonderful wonderful work
Saheem Ali: Thank you, Josephine. It was such a pleasure to talk to you.
Jo Reed: That was the Associate Artistic Director of The Public Theater and director of “Fat Ham” Saheem Ali. “Fat Ham” is showing at The Public Theater through July 17. Find out more at publictheater.organd you can keep up with Saheem Ali at Saheemali.com. As for Free Shakespeare in the Park—"Richard III” is running at the Delacorte Theater from June 21 through July 17. “As You Like It” opens on August 10 and runs through September 11. You can more information at publictheater.org -- just click on Free Shakespeare in the Park. We’ll also have a link in our show notes. You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Follow us wherever you get your podcast and leave us a rating on Apple, it helps people to find us. I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Saheem Ali is associate artistic director of the Public Theater as well as the director of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fat Ham. In this podcast, Ali talks about working with Fat Ham playwright James Ijames and his ongoing work with plays that contemporize and expand Shakespeare (like Fat Ham, which sets Hamlet in a Black Southern backyard barbeque with a Queer Hamlet figure at its center, or Merry Wives which sets Shakespeare’s play in Washington Heights in the midst of a community of West African immigrants). Ali also discusses his role as associate artistic director of the Public, the mission of the theater—particularly of its Free Shakespeare in the Park Program, the Public’s continuing work in interrogating power structures in theater, and its commitment to ensuring diverse voices in leadership, staff, performers, and audiences.