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Danai Gurira on Starring in Robert O’Hara’s ‘Richard III’: ‘It Should Be a Historical Play, But It’s Actually a Political Thriller’

Richard III
Andres Otero

Robert O’Hara, the Tony Award-nominated director and acclaimed playwright, sat beneath a tree near the side of the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. On the opening night of “Richard III,” a searing adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy mounted by O’Hara and The Public Theater in Central Park this summer, the director shied away from the photographers and the spotlight.

Before taking his seat in the back of the house, watching restlessly as directors do on opening nights, he sat beneath a tree in the quiet and talked about Richard.

“We all look more like the devil than we think we do,” O’Hara told Variety, breathing in to describe his production. “In order to make a villain less like who we are, Shakespeare gave Richard his deformity. There’s been a history of people and productions whose instinct it is to physicalize Richard’s villainy, rather than internalize it. But that’s where we’re going.”

Lazy loaded image
Danai Gurira. Andres Otero

O’Hara’s “Richard III“ stars Danai Gurira, known for her work in “Black Panther,” as the infamously deformed and murderous despot. In O’Hara’s adaptation, Gurira’s Richard is crippled by the gaze of others, his self-hatred fueled by an internalization of color and gender. As Gurira proclaims her Richard to be “unfinished, sent before my time into this breathing world scarce half made up,” her words describe disability not as physical impairment, but as other.

“A lot of us feel that we have something wrong with us, because society looks at us and says that we’re not the best we can be,” O’Hara continued. “And so this is an interesting take that Danai and I are dealing with, because a diverse group of people negotiate projections all the time. Women negotiate. People of color negotiate. Gay people negotiate.”

“Richard hates himself,” he continued. “And he is acting in the way that people who hate themselves do. If there is a deformity, it’s his interior self. And you can’t govern from that. You can’t govern from a place of self-hate.”

As the Shakespearean scholar KS Williams writes, in “Richard III,” the body of the king has always been at stake. Richard remains the ideal Shakespearean king through which we can figure the issues of the body politic, to materialize those bodies and topics which sit at the center of American discontent.

“I’m not invested in an audience’s comfort, because the audience is not invested in my comfort. No one is worried about my Black gay body,” O’Hara, known worldwide for his direction of Jeremy O. Harris’ “Slave Play,” continued, still resting beside the Delacorte.

“Part of my job as a director is to trigger you. We’re so afraid of this word now, but my job is to make something that causes you to feel. Because this production is free—because anybody throwing a frisbee can walk in—our “Richard III” is meant to make you uncomfortable.”

As Shakespeare’s tragedy progresses—moving forward on a murderous track till Richard disposes of his enemies and is crowned king—Richard’s notion of deformity exists to justify his political ends. Through hatred, Richard becomes a symbol of the oppressed and the oppressor. In that context, Gurira’s presence onstage as a woman is itself politically radical.

“This play tells you what happens when you allow individuals to go unchecked, when you allow white men to go unfettered,” O’Hara told Variety on opening night. “We know who put the judges on the Supreme Court. We know who overturned Roe v. Wade. Richard is an example of men standing aside and deciding what everybody’s bodies should be doing, and then walking away.”

And so, at its conclusion, its king slain and tyranny ended, “Richard III”—or at least “Richard III” in O’Hara’s hands today—is relentlessly foreboding. In America—after January 6, after Roe—the crown is bloodied, and Richmond’s proclamation of peace after Richard’s defeat sounds like a crooked premonition.

That’s the point, says Gurira.

“There is too much about the actions, the tactics of Richard that reflect current day leadership, reflect current day politics. It should be a historical play, but it’s actually a political thriller,” she told Variety in an interview the morning after her opening night performance.

“I grew up in post-colonial Africa. Need I say more about the specifics of that,” she continued. “The irony of being an African woman embodying an English king, wrestling in some way with the pathologies of a post-colonial culture. Countries must grapple with their identities. New nations begin their own narratives,” she summed.

“This is a play about the repetition of tyranny.”