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Shakespeare in the Park’s upcoming Hamlet is ‘very hardcore and vulnerable’

Ato Blankson-Wood shares what it’s like playing Hamlet at Shakespeare in the Park.

Ato Blankson-Wood as Hamlet
Photograph: Joan Marcus
Photograph: Joan Marcus
Written by
Leigh Scheps

It’s been a milestone year for African-American Hamlets. On Broadway, James Ijames’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play Fat Ham is slathering Shakespeare’s tragedy in barbecue sauce until it falls from its old bones. Meanwhile, farther uptown, rising star Ato Blankson-Wood is playing the torn prince in the latest spin on the Bard’s original text: Shakespeare in the Park’s free outdoor production, which runs through August 6. 

“I'm really excited for New York to see this Hamlet. It's a very Black Hamlet,” says Blankson-Wood of director Kenny Leon’s production, which co-stars John Douglas Thompson, Solea Pfeiffer and Lorraine Toussaint. “I think there is something exciting about that fusion. I hope folks who come out and see it respond to it and feel something."

Blankson-Wood is no stranger to Shakespeare in the Park’s Delacorte Theater: He made his New York debut there in the ensemble of the 2008 revival of Hair, which later moved to Broadway, and has returned to play the major roles of Orlando in As You Like It and Orsino in Twelfth Night. His Broadway credits include the musical Lysistrada Jones and a Tony-nominated supporting turn in the controversial Slave Play.

That path has led Blankson-Wood to perhaps the biggest challenge of his career: the central role in what may be the best play of all time, in a production that aims to hold a mirror up to modern life. Time Out New York chatted with him about the show and about his favorite spots near the theater. 

Ato Blankson-Wood in Hamlet
Photograph: Joan Marcus

What has been your experience of doing Shakespeare in the Park?

For me, the Delacorte is the most magical theater in New York City. We're under the stars. We're in the middle of Central Park. It feels like such a cultural moment in New York as well. All of these New Yorkers are coming to see this for free. It's humbling that we're outside: It's actually the raccoons’ home—it's actually the mosquitoes’ home—and we're sharing their space.

What does it mean to you to play Hamlet?

My very first show was Hair in 2008 and the other show in that season was Hamlet. Michael Stuhlbarg was Hamlet. There are a lot of Hamlet references in Hair as well. It was my very first job. So I was looking at all of the other people who had been doing it for a while and thought, I would love to be in their shoes one day. I feel like I set an intention 15 years ago and this is the fruition of that intention. It feels right—like a really full-circle moment.

Did you see Hamlet when you were in the season of Hair that year? What do you remember about seeing Hamlet sitting in the audience?

The thing I most remember was how it felt so virtuosic. Hamlet has to go so many places and Michael Stuhlbarg did that with incredible ease. Hamlet is the hero of the story, but he does things that are not heroic. He's not always a good guy. That was the sort of the first encounter I had with feeling like we don't always have to be rooting for the good guy. There's something more interesting in delving into a character’s complexity. 

How is this interpretation of Hamlet different from other productions?

Coming out of a pandemic, I’m really aware of loss and grief. That is really at the forefront of my Hamlet. I think that’s what’s necessary in this Hamlet. We have just come out of this massive time of upheaval. A lot of people are still processing. My Hamlet feels very hardcore and vulnerable.

The show is promoting the show as “a riveting, contemporary post-2020 Hamlet." What does that mean? 

Something we are wrestling with in the show is the racial reckoning that happened during the pandemic. Something else we’re wrestling with is the ways we are implicated in systems and the ways we’re lending energy to things that are destructive. The pandemic allowed us the time to really look in the mirror and not hide from ourselves. So I think there’s something really bare and naked about our production.

How would you describe Hamlet to someone who has heard of the play but doesn’t know what it is about?  

In its fullness, it's a political story but we've taken a more intimate approach. It's really about a family reckoning with loss and how each person responds to that loss. 

One of the play’s most famous passages is the “To be or not to be?” soliloquy. What is Hamlet saying in this monologue, and do you feel an added pressure because it’s so well-known?

It's an existential question. Why are we here? Why do we do this life thing? What's the point? Is it worth it? What do we really get out of this? It's a big mountain to climb—that speech specifically. My mind starts to go right before it happens. I'm still trying to find ways that feel useful and truthful without having the pressure of that speech. 

Ato Blankson-Wood as Hamlet
Photograph: Joan Marcus

How do you get into character to play Hamlet?

Something I was told before I went into rehearsal was, “Hamlet meets you where you are. This will be your Hamlet. There will be no other Hamlet like this one so don't try to get into character so much as make yourself available to the character.” Something I've really been doing is trying to quiet the mind, trying to get to a space that feels open, and letting this beautiful language and the circumstances work on me.

What spots near the Delacorte would you recommend for audiences?

I’m a little basic in that I love a little Lenwich moment. So that’s one of my go-to spots up there. There’s this restaurant called Spice Thai that I love. And I love lying in Sheep’s Meadow, taking a little break over there between shows and between rehearsals.

Hamlet plays at the Delacorte Theater from June 8 through August 6. Click here for full information about how to get free tickets to Shakespeare in the Park.

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