The American Shakespeare Center returns to Sewanee for Hand of Time Tour. Photo by Lucy Wimmer (C’20).
By Mandy Moe Pwint Tu
The late Ann Jennalie Cook once invited Dr. Pamela Macfie to an evening at her house. Cook’s students were gathered, and Macfie watched as they did a complete readthrough of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
“People were on their feet, and moving, and fighting with one another, and wooing one another,” recalled Macfie. “It was extremely lively. It gives you a sense of her approach to Shakespeare.”
Cook, a distinguished Shakespearean and former faculty member of the Sewanee School of Letters, passed away on August 13, 2017. In her honor, one of her graduate students, who requested that their gift be anonymous, provided the funds that allowed the School of Letters and the College of Arts and Sciences to bring the American Shakespeare Center (ASC) to Sewanee.
The ASC first arrived in the spring of 2018. Performing Macbeth and The Taming of the Shrew in Guerry Auditorium, the touring group left a lasting impression on the Sewanee community. This year, thanks again to the generosity of the anonymous donor, the ASC returned to the Mountain for its Hand of Time tour, showing Antigone and The Winter’s Tale.
“It was the generosity of someone whose life had [been] changed by Sewanee to bring them back,” said Macfie. “I hope that next year we will be bringing A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Cymbeline here.”
There are two distinct aspects of a performance by the ASC. First, the house lights stay on during every performance so that the actors can see the audience and vice versa. Secondly, each performance begins with members of the troupe playing various instruments and singing songs, which are often contemporary.
The portable set that the company brings with them resembles that of the Blackfriars’ Playhouse in London, England. In this manner, they mimic almost exactly the Elizabethan conditions in which Shakespeare’s players would have performed. Several audience members sat on stage, right in the midst of the action, mimicking Elizabethan traditions.
The ASC opened with a performance of Antigone by Sophocles, with Constance Swain in the title role. Before the beginning of the play but after the half hour of pre-show songs, the troupe launched into a musical number, aptly titled “Ode to Oedipus,” which gave an overview of the tragic events leading up to Antigone.
Written by and performed in part by Josh Clark, who played Haemon in Antigone and Florizel in The Winter’s Tale, “Ode to Oedipus” was inspired by “Tribes at War” by NaS and Damian Marley, featuring K’naan, a song he had loved for years. When Swain suggested the song for the Antigone pre-show, Clark rewrote the song using the original chorus to tell the story of Oedipus.
“We figured out a way for it to bleed into the fight of the two brothers, and set up the idea that one gets buried and one doesn’t,” said Clark. “That’s what’s Antigone is dealing with.”
Clark has always “been interested in words,” and he started rapping at the age of 14. He attended the University of Michigan in Flint, where he became involved in the theatre department. Graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Performance, he then joined the Professional Actor’s Training Program for his MFA at the University of Houston. He joined the ASC on their 2016-2017 Hungry Hearts Tour, playing Romeo in Romeo & Juliet, among other roles.
“I’ve been on the tour ever since,” he said. “Touring is an exhausting, fantastic cycle. The gift of seeing the country while getting paid to perform at all these stops, it just doesn’t get any better.”
Topher Embrey, who played the Shepherd’s son in The Winter’s Tale and Tiresias in Antigone, agreed. Embrey was offered a contract for the 2017-2018 Wicked Folly Tour and is part of the troupe, along with Clark, who performed at Sewanee earlier this year.
“At the end of the day, there is nothing but love,” he said. “My troupe is like a second family to me, which is great because you need that kind of love and support when you’re away from home for so long.”
The bonds between the actors are evident as they take on different roles, sing together, and take curtain call. Macfie noted the hybridity of early modern and contemporary theatre practice, remarking especially on the social consciousness that the troupe brings to their shows.
“There’s a really diverse audience for Shakespeare here, especially in the sense of race and gender identity in their casting,” said Macfie. “I think that they have a commitment to demonstrate that Shakespeare speaks to our contemporary concerns, anxieties, and sorrows.”
She continued, “Ralph Cohen [the co-founding director of the ASC] said that when they send The Merchant of Venice on the road, they will not perform at high schools without first having a conversation about anti-Semitism and social injustice. What could be more timely than that?”