Wilma’s ‘Hamlet’ has a female lead

Wilma’s ‘Hamlet’ has a female lead
Alexander Iziliaev

One of the inspirations for the Wilma Theater’s upcoming take on “Hamlet” was Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s 1989 production, which cast actress Teresa Budzisz-Kyryzanowska in the title role. Zainab Jah watched a film of that production during her own preparation for the role and says, “I very quickly forgot I was looking at a woman and got caught up in what the character was going through. It so beautifully told the story of this person’s condition, this loneliness and isolation that the character of Hamlet was feeling.”

Jah’s easy acclimation to the non-traditional casting proved encouraging as she faced the daunting prospect of portraying the Danish prince. A self-described “Shakespeare nerd” whose grandmother, an English teacher, insisted she read the Bard as a child, the London-born, Sierra Leone-raised actress had never imagined that she might play Hamlet one day.

“I’ve loved the part ever since I read it when I was a teenager,” she says, “but it never occurred to me that I would ever play Hamlet. It’s just not something you ever think is a possibility as a female, much less a black female.”

Wilma artistic director Blanka Zizka determined that Jah would be her Hamlet after seeing in the actress in the company’s 2013 production of Danai Gurira’s play “The Convert.” When Zizka approach her with the idea, though, Jah says her instinct was to refuse. “I was shocked, and my knee-jerk reaction was, ‘No.’ But Blanka wouldn’t take no for an answer. I told her I was terrified at the idea, and she said, ‘That’s exactly why you should do it.’”

Zizka will follow “Hamlet” with Tom Stoppard’s comedy “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.” While Jah will not return for the second play, most of her castmates will, in an attempt at forming a regular company of artists. Zizka’s take on Shakespeare’s classic is freed from a specific time period, with a set designed by Matt Saunders covered in graffiti by street artist CERA.

Jah says the experience thus far has been surreal, especially given the fact that she’s played Ophelia in the past and occasionally feels as if she’s talking to herself in scenes between the two characters. But she hesitates to predict how her casting will be interpreted by audiences. “I’m going to walk on stage, people are going to see a black female, and I can’t really guess how they’re going to receive it but I know they’re not going to be indifferent. I’m just bringing my experience as a human being, as a person who moves through this world and has felt hurt and love and joy and despair the same as everyone else.”


March 25-April 26

Wilma Theater

265 S. Broad St.

$25, 215-546-7824


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