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Shakespeare & Beyond

Q&A: Reynaldo Piniella and Emily Lyon on their new bilingual adaptation of Hamlet

The Reading Room is a Folger Theatre festival of new plays inspired by and in conversation with Shakespeare. Leading up to the four-play inaugural festival of readings and talks (January 19 – 21), we’re doing a Q&A series with the playwrights involved.

In this radical bilingual reimagining of Shakespeare’s story, Hamlet is a Black and Latinx prince whose sense of identity has been fractured by the loss of his Black father. Read our Q&A below with the playwrights, Reynaldo Piniella and Emily Lyon, and get your tickets for The Reading Room.

The Folger Theatre reading of this Hamlet adaptation will be directed by Tatiana Pandiani, with translation by Christin Eve Cato, with Cynthia Santos-DeCure as the voice and text coach, and with The Classical Theatre of Harlem.

Reynaldo Piniella

Reynaldo Piniella is an actor, writer, and director from East New York, Brooklyn. Read his full bio.

Emily Lyon is an award-winning Brooklyn-based director and story editor. Read her full bio.


FOLGER: What’s the story behind the creation of your play and its early life? What was your process? 

REYNALDO: In 2019, I was at a crossroads in my creative life. I was a working actor in New York City, doing a mix of new plays Off-Broadway and classic plays at regional theaters, but I felt really unsatisfied. As a biracial actor, I’m often asked to pick a side of myself when I’m auditioning, and being Black, Puerto Rican, and Cuban has put me into situations where my identity is questioned or disrespected. I had a director ask me if I was even Black when I walked in to audition for an August Wilson play, and I had a prominent Latino actor say to me that I’m “not really Latino” when he learned I was part African-American.

These experiences made me long to be a part of a creative process where I could bring my full self to the room instead of suppressing some of my identity. In voicing this desire, the actor Keith Randolph Smith told me about Theatre Communication Group’s Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowship and how the fellowship transformed his identity and creative process and how the program could be just what I was looking for. The Fox fellowship is designed to take an actor from just being a part of a creative process, to being a leader in it. An actor is paired up with a non-profit theater of their choice and through this partnership, the actor generates a project that will serve both their individual creative and personal growth as well as the theater’s community.

The Classical Theatre of Harlem instantly came to mind because of the intersectionality of their community and the vibrancy of their performances. CTH is one of the few theaters I’ve worked at that has asked me to bring my full self to a classical text. There’s no need to code-switch, to speak in a certain way or suppress what makes me unique. All of that magic is exactly what CTH wants onstage. When you watch a CTH production, you see a wonderful mix of performers, dancers, and artists that represent the spectrum of the African Diaspora and someone like me is not only seen, we are celebrated.

But before I could apply for the fellowship, I had to figure out which play I wanted to tackle that would allow me to both explore my heritage and identity and challenge me creatively. I spoke to Emily Lyon, the best dramaturg I know, about which of Shakespeare’s plays were worth exploring given the communities I wanted to celebrate and the creative journey I was on. Emily instantly recommended Hamlet but with a twist – this Hamlet would be a bilingual English and Spanish speaker. We discussed what the world of the play would look like and how the themes of the play would resonate most deeply with this bilingual adaptation, and I agreed that her idea was ingenious. I went ahead and applied for the fellowship, was lucky enough to receive it, and Emily and I got to work on the script. Two years later, we’re so excited to bring our latest draft to The Reading Room!

FOLGER: 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?

EMILY:The origin of our adaptation was to celebrate the intersectionality of the Black and Latinx communities. It’s a story about a young man finding a way to come to peace within himself after his family is fractured, and his search for truth within a world where he’s told he can’t fully express himself. However, despite its elements of levity and wit, Hamlet is a tragedy, and ends with a sea of dead bodies on stage. Given all the violence suffered by Black and Brown people in the world, the last thing we wanted to leave the audience with was that image.

Some advisors suggested changing the ending of play, to instead make it a message of solidarity. Others have suggested that we leave the ending as is – we are doing Hamlet after all, and that’s the truth of the story we chose. Personally, as a Shakespeare and classics scholar for over 15 years, I like to find solutions that use only the puzzle pieces a playwright has given.

We’ve proposed one solution, so in our reading, we invite you to be in discussion with us: what questions and provocations does the ending leave you with? Can the entrance of a stranger alter the final image enough to leave the audience with something other than regret? Did your own sense of intimacy with the story shift with doubled casting and the language?

We hope the audience joins with us to celebrate these communities, reconsiders the way language shapes the intimacy in their own relationships, and considers whose stories get told, and how.

FOLGER: What are you hoping to learn from The Reading Room? What’s next for you and your play?

REYNALDO and EMILY: The Reading Room will be our first chance to hear the play out loud in front of an audience. We’re really interested in how much of the bilingualism translates to an audience that is a mix of English and Spanish speakers. What do you hear newly in this famous play? How does the language create intimacy — or lack thereof? But also, what story points might get lost in translation? How much are people getting even if they don’t understand every word being said?

After The Reading Room, we will be getting ready for a workshop of the play at a prominent New York theater in March to continue its development with the feedback that comes in this process. We’re excited to see how our Hamlet resonates with many different audiences, especially the Black and Nuyorican communities that inspired it.

We hope to have a full production by 2024.