To commemorate the 400th anniversary of the printing of Shakespeare’s First Folio — the book that gave us Shakespeare — the Folger commissioned a new play: Our Verse in Time to Come.
Folger audiences may remember the premiere of Our Verse in Time to Come at The Reading Room series in January, a new-play festival featuring works inspired by and in conversation with Shakespeare.
This April the play will be performed at DC Public Library locations in all eight wards of Washington, DC, as part of the Searching for Shakespeare festival. It will also have a one-week residency at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company at the end of April.
In the Q&A below, playwrights Malik Work and Karen Ann Daniels (also the Folger’s Director of Programming and Artistic Director of Folger Theatre) share more about their work.
Can you give us the elevator speech for your play?
An aging emcee, affectionately known as SOS, gets out of prison after 25 years only to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia. Realizing it’s his last chance to reconnect with his children, he engages an old family friend and legal ally to arrange his estate and ensure his now grown twins, Vi and Will, accept it before his memory slips away for good. Reuniting to sort out their father’s inheritance, the estranged siblings uncover more than they bargained for. Along their journey, they meet storytellers who hold pieces of the puzzle that unlock their hearts and offer renewed connection to their heritage, community, and father. Inspired by the works and words of Shakespeare, Our Verse in Time to Come bridges the past with the present through verse, song, and memory, and interrogates whose stories remain and whose role it is to ensure they survive.
What’s the story behind the creation of your play and its early life? What was your process?
The idea to write a new play in honor of the 400th anniversary of the First Folio came from thinking about what this book is in its most basic form: a collection of stories compiled by friends of the artist who wanted to save the stories, the creativity, and the voice of their friend Shakespeare. We have it because a group of people decided it was worthy of saving and sharing.
The Folger conceived of an integrated exhibition and theatrical performance that we could take to where people live, work, and play across DC to invite folks to get to know what a Shakespeare First Folio is, how it came to be, and why we still celebrate it today. With the play, we were trying to answer that last question.
It started with a dream Karen Ann had about embodying memory through a living folio and why should we celebrate the First Folio today? How do we draw a parallel between the bards of our time and culture, and the importance of collecting and holding stories that hold meaningful lessons for posterity? So we set out to create a theatrical First Folio for the 21st century embodied in a new work, a contemporary story, that uncovers our mutual human need to share stories across generations and cultures.
Our first project working together had involved designing theater curriculum for incarcerated folks. We shared a passion for serving that population, bringing about healing, and centering the stories of the marginalized and forgotten. It made sense for us to revisit that space through this project since we felt like we still had more to say and do. Our initial work was interrupted by the pandemic, and though it seems to have entered a new phase, the endemic of over-incarceration has not let up. There is also a powerful intersection between those who have been removed from society for prolonged periods of time, and the concept of how we are remembered. Death is the ultimate removal from society that we will all face. We shall all surely die one day. What will our folios look like? Who will compile them? What will they keep, and what will be forgotten?
Were there any particular problems or knots in Shakespeare’s works that you wanted to wrestle with in your play? Any particular opportunities that arose in spring boarding off Shakespeare? What are you hoping that audiences will take away from this play?
Spring boarding off Shakespeare allows us to feature the power and resonance of the English language. Shakespeare is also constantly popping up in our lives. Through our culture’s embracing of him as a storyteller, his characters and themes show up in the way we see the world. Getting to play with that intentionally, especially in a modern and culturally relevant context, is a lot of fun.
In many ways, Our Verse in Time to Come isn’t really about wrestling with Shakespeare at all. It’s about understanding why we still celebrate his work, why it is worth remembering. We wanted to springboard off our own lives and identities and utilize some of the tools, devices, language, and character types of Shakespeare, but tell a new story about human creativity and memory. There are people who may or may not be fans or think of him as an essential storyteller, or that he could speak to their lives, cultures, or identities. So, we are focusing on a world that looks like ours, sounds like ours, which is deeply intertwined with his language and stories. In many ways this wasn’t about Shakespeare at all. It is about us today, our stories, and the things we want to remember and hold for future generations: The Griot in us all.
Anything else that you’d like readers and audience members to know about you and/or your play?
Our Verse is our attempt to share a story that looks like, feels like, sounds like, moves like, and represents our cultural perspective – that elevates and empowers the lives and voices of Black people.
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