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Interview with Chukwudi Iwuji
Public Theater Mobile Unit Hamlet

By Beth Herstein

Also see our recent book review of Agnes De Mille: Telling Stories in Broadway Dance


Chukwudi Iwuji
Photo by Tammy Shell
As the summer nears its end, the Public Theater's Mobile Unit prepares to take off. The Public describes the unit as a continuation of Joseph Papp's original Mobile Shakespeare, which ultimately evolved into the New York Shakespeare Society and then the Public Theater itself. In keeping with Papp's philosophy that Shakespeare belongs to everyone and therefore everyone should have the opportunity to see his works performed live, the unit has traveled to social service centers, homeless shelters, veterans' shelters, and correctional facilities, among other community venues in all boroughs, with the purpose of reaching underserved groups; and it has produced numerous plays including Romeo and Juliet, Richard III, and Macbeth. This year, its seventh, the Mobile Unit is performing Hamlet August 26 - September 17, 2016, at various locations throughout the five boroughs, including the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center, the Queensboro Correctional Facility, the DreamYard Art Center, and the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House/Women's Mental Health Shelter, before it settles down at the Public's Shiva Theater from September 19 - October 9.

This sort of endeavor takes enthusiasm, compassion and ambition, and Chukwudi Iwuji, who plays the title role, has plenty of both. I learned during our engaging telephone conversation, the Olivier Award winner and Public Theater artist is also intelligent, funny, and a great interview.

Iwuji resided in many other places before coming here. He was born in Nigeria, where the family lived until he was around ten years old. Then, his parents, both of whom are economists, took jobs with the United Nations and the family headed to Ethiopia for their work. Due in part to the peripatetic life his parents led because of their work, Iwuji and his siblings were sent to boarding school in England. "It was a wonderful time for me," he says. "School gave us a solid home base. But we'd visit our parents during summer and other breaks wherever they lived at the time, and got to see the world." In retrospect, he realizes that he learned acceptance and tolerance, and appreciation of other cultures. "It became part of my DNA," he says. "I hope that when I have kids I can do the same for them."

Initially, Iwuji came to the United States to study economics at Yale. His exposure to theater while there sparked his passion for acting, and after he got his degree he headed west to study at the Professional Theater Training Program at University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. Upon graduation, he returned to England. He appeared in television and movies but worked primarily in theater, ultimately becoming an associate artist with the Royal Shakespeare Company and performing in classical productions in such places as the Old Vic. His work in what he describes as his breakthrough role—as Henry VI in RSC's 2006 production of Henry VI Parts 1, 2, and 3—earned great reviews, and he and the rest of the cast won the Olivier Award for best ensemble.

He has also built a solid reputation here in New York since his move here around 2012. Among other roles, Iwuji has worked alongside the great John Douglas Thompson, whom he calls "a dear friend" and "proof that you can be a successful actor and still be a good human being," in the Theater for a New Audience acclaimed production of Tamburlaine the Great from late 2014 through early 2015. In addition, he played Edgar and Poor Tom in the Delacorte production of King Lear in 2014, and performed as Enobarbus in the Public's production of Antony and Cleopatra the same year. He notes that in many of these shows he's played roles traditionally performed by white men. "After I finished Henry VI, people kept asking me, 'When are you going to do Othello?'" Instead, he's been more interested in the opportunities that nontraditional casting has afforded him. He's been lucky, he states, to have worked with companies like the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Public Theater, which have offered him these chances.

Hamlet, Iwuji stated, is one of the roles he has looked forward to the most. "I won't tell you how long [I've wanted to play the part] because then you'll know how old I am," Iwuji, who is not old, adds with a laugh. As for the production and its outreach, he is "both looking forward to it and feeling very trepidatious about it." He is energized by the rehearsals and inspired by his discussions with director Patricia McGregor, who first noticed Iwuji during his run in Antony and Cleopatra. "Patricia told me about the message she wants to send, connecting it to the Black Lives Matter movement," he says. Also, Hamlet, he states, is "a guy who doesn't want to have to believe and become an avenging sword," but circumstances force him to take that stand. "Patricia wants to examine why people go to these extremes, like Hamlet. What is it that takes him—that takes us all—to the point where you're willing to take another life?"

Iwuji is thrilled that through this production Hamlet will be performed for people who may not be familiar with Shakespeare's works, and for those in reduced circumstances and in prison for whom this may be one of the highlights of the year. "I've spent years studying his plays, but some of the people in the audience may not know how the story ends." He is excited at the challenge of making the work come alive for them, and keeping it surprising and relevant to their lives. He's been relatively privileged throughout his life, he notes, and has had the advantage of a good education and strong family, and he'll be reading lines in Hamlet—to prisoners—that analogize Denmark to a prison. That's where his trepidations come in. "I asked Patricia, 'Are you sure I'm the best guy for this?' But she told me that I was proving her point by asking the question," by showing the sensitivity and heightened self-awareness that are critical to her vision. He hopes that, rather than underscore their differences, the lines will feel universal and will be a way of connecting the actors to their audiences. "I want them to they feel we are giving a voice to their voices."

Another thing the team behind the show wants audiences to realize, Iwuji says, is that "the madness we wind up in is avoidable." Part of the goal of McGregor and everyone involved in the production is to start a valuable conversation. Because of the topicality of the production, its outreach, and its energetic approach and strong creative team, he states, "I've never felt more part of a universal discourse doing a piece of theater than I do right now." He hopes the audience, during both the mobile and stationary parts of it run, will feel the same.

The Public Theater Mobile Unit Hamlet runs August 26 - October 9, 2016. For more information, visit publictheater.org.


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