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By RAVEN SNOOK
Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at actors and how they create their roles
Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney has relocated Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra to late 18th-century Haiti, when the country was on the brink of its slave-led revolution. For classically trained African-American actor Chivas Michael, who plays a variety of supporting roles in the production at the Public Theater, that's a relief.
"Every time I step on stage to do a classical piece, I always feel I have to wiggle my way into a part because of how we see black bodies in America," Michael says. "In this setting, I found a commonality with these characters. I know these people: They are oppressed and they are afraid and they are fighting for country and land and honor. I know what that feels like."
Hailing from the South and a graduate of New York University's graduate acting program, Michael originally met McCraney---who recently won a MacArthur "genius" grant---while still in school. "Back in 2008, we were housemates in Florence, Italy while I was there doing a production of Romeo and Juliet with some of my classmates," he recalls. "We sat up drinking wine all night in the Tuscan countryside and became fast friends."
When McCraney, who's also directing this production, began working on his stripped-down and recontextualized Antony and Cleopatra, he immediately reached out to Michael. "He sent me a message about a year ago that said, 'There's this eunuch character that I think you'd be great for,'" Michael laughs. "I did the reading at New Dramatists and have been with the show ever since."
The show is a unique collaboration among three theatres: England's Royal Shakespeare Company, where it premiered last fall; Miami's GableStage, where it played in January; and the Public, where it will run through March 23. The international cast has been the same throughout, and although many of the actors play multiple parts, McCraney instructed Michael to portray his three roles---Cleopatra's singing eunuch Mardian, Antony's aide Eros, and a soothsayer---as if they were one person.
"The feeling that I hope I give is that it's one character who develops into different ones," Michael says. "In rehearsals, Tarell and I posited that Mardian was a Haitian slave freed by Antony who gives him the new name Eros, which is something that could have happened at that time in history. Did you notice that I slowly shed jewelry as the play goes on? It's as if my characters are losing their identity. I go from being a soothsayer who can see the future to a knave of Antony's who's terrified of what freedom means. And is he even free? Because he still has to serve this guy."
Michael's most action-packed scene arrives in the last act, when Antony, believing Cleopatra is dead, asks Eros to kill him. Reluctant to fulfill his master's request, he commits suicide instead. However, Michael arguably makes the biggest impression as Mardian, who croons haunting, rara-inspired melodies in an ethereal falsetto. "The composer [Michael Thurber] was actually in the room from the very first reading," Michael says. "He brought in samples of Haitian music, and I also have an extensive collection of ancient African music. So we all had this dialogue about what it would sound like. At first I was very afraid to sing some of these songs. They're so high-pitched! But he said I could do it."
Michael also had a bigger concern: What it meant for an out black actor to put "this strange queer creature" on stage. "I'm usually pretty fearless as a performer," he says. "But [playing Mardian] in front of an audience reminded me of puberty. I thought, 'Are they going to judge me and call me names?' I was especially scared in Miami, when we performed in front of a lot of local high school students. Tarell and I had several conversations about how I would be received. Every show, I wondered whether someone would hurl a slur at me from the audience."
To Michael's relief, no one ever did. In fact, the kids' reaction to Mardian was quite the opposite. "They loved the character," he says. "They identified with him because he's different and awkward. They related to his literal queerness because they're going through that phase, too."
Raven Snook writes about theatre for Time Out New York and has contributed arts and entertainment articles to The Village Voice, the New York Post, TV Guide, and others.
Photo by Joan Marcus