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"Elated and frightened":
First African female Hamlet at the Wilma Theater
Interview with Zainab Jah

By Henrik Eger


Zainab Jah as Hamlet and Sarah Gilko as Ophelia
Zainab Jah, an amazing actress who grew up in Sierra Leone, is Hamlet at The Wilma. "How do you feel?" I asked. "Well," she said, "fine—after an hour and a half of vocal class and an hour and a half of sword class, before we even work on our rehearsals, day after day. No other director spends as much time and energy on preparing her actors for a powerful performance as Blanka Zizka."

I told Jah how moved I was when I learned that four of her ancestors, tribal chiefs in West Africa, had witnessed the first performance of Hamlet outside of Europe while on board the Red Dragon, anchored off the coast of Sierra Leone in 1607. "I didn't know either," she said, "until I studied the Arden edition of Hamlet."

"How did you get discovered by the Wilma?" I asked. She laughs, "I performed in [Danai Gurira's] The Convert [directed by Michael John GarcÚs], a co-production by the McCarter theatre [Princeton, NJ] and the Wilma. That's where Blanka Zizka saw my work. Last year, out of the blue, she called me and asked whether I could play a role for her upcoming production of Hamlet. I had played Ophelia before and was happy to accept to play the same role. 'No,' said Blanka, 'I don't want you to play Ophelia, but Hamlet.' 'Hamlet?' I asked, aware that African women would never have the chance to play the most daunting of roles in theatre, but Blanka insisted. I was so shocked that I hung up on her. Yes it was a shock. It was all a blur."

However, Zizka did not give up. "I found the task of playing Hamlet terrifying. Blanka was tenacious. 'You should do it precisely because it is terrifying,' she said. It took me three weeks before I finally gave in. Why? Because Blanka said, 'I won't do Hamlet unless you agree.' And so I signed the contract, both elated and frightened."

Zizka has developed a concept where she invites some of the most cutting edge theatre artists from around the world to conduct intensive workshops for the ensemble members that the Wilma director has put together over the course of time. "I had heard about these workshops," Jah said, "but I was not aware of how strenuous they are. They went on for months—it was a unique experience. It was not a whirlwind or a rush into another production, but the most thorough experience I have ever had, and I have worked with many directors. To attend these intense workshops, I commuted from New York to Philadelphia regularly for the whole summer. I even had to take time off from Romeo and Juliet to start rehearsals of Hamlet in February. And now I'm staying in Philadelphia for the whole run."

"Zizka demands a lot of herself and the entire artistic team, no matter how strenuous and time consuming it all might be. How did you cope with those demands?" I asked.

"I loved her approach. We are kindred spirits, both trained in Europe. I am fascinated by her immersive, collaborative way of working with us as an ensemble. Her direction is not just a means to an end, but she sees the wider picture, and it feels very natural to me."

I asked her to describe Zizka's approach to directing. "There's a lot of exploration of oneself and the play, and a lot of improvisation. For example, we did some scenes in gibberish, rolling around on the floor, making funny noises. At first I experienced some resistance as I was frightened by that approach. Blanka comforted us, 'There is no wrong way to do this,' she said. 'Let go of self-conscious fear, any self-imposed ideas. Only you can bring yourself out into the play.' We were given the liberty to make Hamlet our own through various ways, including freedom of movement, finding one's own way of doing things, and exploring Hamlet's world thoroughly."

Jah was the only actor who had not worked with Zizka before. "I am happy to say that my fellow actors allowed me to feel free from the very beginning because of their openness. That whole approach here in Philly is much better than New York," she added, "it's less commercial, it's much freer, and much more expressive. I love the Wilma. I love Philadelphia," she said.


Ross Beschler as Horatio and Zainab Jah as Hamlet
I couldn't help but think about those ancestors of hers who saw Hamlet being performed in Sierra Leone hundreds of years ago, and wanted to know whether there were any productions of the play in Sierra Leone today. "No," she said, "the country is still trying to recover from a 15 year long civil war, even though it ended six years ago. Sierra Leone was and still is in shambles and Ebola added to the misery. It will take time before my parents' country will be back on her feet. Sierra Leone is so poor that they are competing with Haiti for the title of 'world's poorest country'."

Luckily, her family survived. "My parents studied medicine in England when I was born, but my grandmother wanted my parents to do well and not be hampered with the upbringing of a child, so I was sent to Sierra Leone and lived there from the age of six months to ten years."

"It was during those years that my grandmother ran a children's theatre company in Freetown [the capital of Sierra Leone] that my life in theatre began. Yes, my grandmother started the madness," she said and laughed.

Aged ten, she was sent to live with her physician parents in England. After her initial culture shock, Jah went to school and later studied dance and theater in London. She blended quickly into Western society, pointing out that because Sierra Leone was a former British colony and everyone spoke English, she had no problem integrating into society in the UK.

"My mother and her family were Creoles, former slaves from the US, who were returned to Africa. They all were brought up in very British ways. My father is a surgeon who has spent the last eight years in Germany. When I visited him there recently, my father, who had always wanted me to be a physician, too, like one of my younger sisters, had accepted the fact that I became a dancer and an actor. He stunned me when he revealed that as a youngster he had played Hamlet, too, and that he had joined a drama club. When he quoted whole passages from Hamlet after all these many years, I felt more connected to him than ever before."

In the UK, Jah passed her O and A levels and studied dance at the London Contemporary Dance Company. She liked the theatre world so much that she wanted to stay, but her parents were fearful and told her that there was no guarantee for her to get a job as a dancer or actor in Sierra Leone. "What makes you think I am going back?" she said, going through her rebellious phase. She stayed in the UK for 15 years, studying, and performing in many different theatres, "with my acting, developing organically from my dancing—it was a welcomed challenge."

Convinced that she would spend the rest of her life in Britain, Jah went on a sabbatical to the US. "I fell in love with a man in New York—a cinematographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan [Timothy Naylor]. We have been married for twelve years now," she said with great joy. "We live in Brooklyn. Both our parents are physicians; we have studied in England; and we have much in common. When I am not acting, I write stories about childhood in Africa, happy and idyllic stories, not the ones people might expect."

Inspired by friends and theatre artists like Coleman Domingo [American actor, playwright, and author of A Boy and His Soul], Danai Gurira [Zimbabwean-American actress and playwright], and many others, Jah felt encouraged to do her own playwriting. Currently she is writing her first play called A New Spring about an immigrant family where the child suddenly realizes that her father isn't her father.

Going by the applause in between scenes and the standing ovation on opening night, no doubt, we will come to love Jah, her colleagues, and Zizka's production of Hamlet. The four tribal chiefs in Sierra Leone who watched the first performance of Hamlet over 400 years ago would be astounded if they could see one of their descendants, Zainab Jah from Sierra Leone, known as "Lady Z" to her friends, on stage in America—personifying one of the most talked about young princes in world literature.

Hamlet, at the Wilma Theater through May 2, 2015. 265 S Broad Street (Broad & Spruce Streets), Philadelphia. For tickets and more information, call 215-546-7824 or visit www.wilmatheater.org.


-- Henrik Eger, editor, www.DramaAroundTheGlobe.com



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