On this episode, Folger theatre returns to live performances this summer, with one of William Shakespeare’s most magical and beloved comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This romantic and mischievous rom will be produced as part of the National Building Museum summer block party on stage at The Playhouse, which is currently being built from the ground up in the majestic Great Hall.
Our guest tonight has earned an MFA from the Academy of Classical Acting right here in DC at George Washington University, Go Colonials, back in 2019. She has played in over thirty Shakespearean roles. Her plays include Much Ado About Nothing, The Tempest, Twelfth Night Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet.
And by the way, before I forget, she was Casio in Othello, which she was the first black woman to perform at the festival, the Island Shakespeare Festival. Ladies and gentlemen, we have Renea Brown!
Renea, welcome to THE INTERVUE!
Thank you, Dean. Well, I’ve never heard anyone introduced me like that it makes you feel very special. So, thank you.
Well, you’re among friends here. And we want to make you special, especially since you got your master’s degree right here in DC.
Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Anytime, thank you for coming. So, the first question I want to ask you is for those who have not heard of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, give us a refresher of what the play is all about.
Yeah, this is a lovey comedy, and they’re sort of three stories rolled into one, that’s the best way I can explain it. The first survey are these mechanicals. And they are preparing a play for the Duke and Duchess for their wedding day. And its high stakes, because if you don’t entertain royalty, they have the right to kill you or you know, take away your employment, etcetera. So that’s one of the stories of one of this. The second story is about Oberon and Titania these fairy kings and queens, the gods. And they have a tumultuous relationship, which is affecting the universe itself, whether how people are reacting towards each other, and they’re fighting over a changeling boy.
And so, there’s a there’s some power fighting for power amongst each other and their relationship there. And the third story is a bit of a love triangle, or I might call it like a love square. Two men are in love with one woman, although one of them has had a previous relationship with another woman. But the two go after this one, and that one, lonely girl goes after one of the other men, and so they’re sort of chasing each other. And then due to some magic in the forest, where they run off to, then the two men start to follow the lonely girl and they fall in love with her. And then the other girl is you know, there’s a lot of miscommunications and a lot of magic that causes that miscommunication. Until all is made well at the end of the play. Of course, it’s a comedy, everything is going to fall right into place. People get married, and there’s a big dance.
How I remembered it from all those years ago. I read the play. And you play Helena in this production. Tell us a little bit more about Helena. And what attracted you to the role?
Yes, Helena is the lonely duckling I was talking about. Her in Hermia are very good friends and we’ll call these for “the lovers”. That’s how we address them in in rehearsal. And unless these lovers, Hermia and Helena are great friends, but Helena is the way I’m playing Helena is that she’s really jealous of Hermia. She has Demetrius’s love Demetrius is in love with Helena is in love with Demetrius, but Demetrius is seeking the approval to be married to Hermia, but Lysander and Hermia are in love.
And so, Helena is jealous of that attention of the sort of commitment that Demetrius is willing to make to her friend, even though they have a previous relationship. So, there’s some jealousy there. And there’s a lot of insecurity there with how she talks about herself. And it’s not that, that she is ugly, or she is undesirable, but she isn’t desired by Demetrius. She is basing all her all her thoughts and feelings about herself. If they all stem from this one person, so she so she’s, she’s insecure, but she is a wholehearted Laverne and is going to and is ambitious and is and is going into the forest to try to make things right with Demetrius to try to win him over. So, she’s, she’s quite persistent.
I bet she is. And now this is not your first time you were in “Midsummer”. I read on your Instagram recently that this was your very first show, back in 1999 and you played a fairy? How does it feel to return to the play several years later?
I have a lot of feelings about it. It’s come full circle. And it’s important to me, because at that time, I didn’t realize how far I was gonna go in the arts. I knew I wanted to be an actor at that age at nine but there was a that scene in which the fairies had their first entrance. I remember watching the Oberon and Titania and having to be told in rehearsal to stop moving my mouth when every time to Titania spoke, because she was just so full of grandeur. And she was tall and poised and I kept thinking like, “yeah, that’s gonna be me one day”.
And eventually I did I did play to Titania, a year ago now, but that this story is special to me because I found that I have fallen into all three categories. I’ve played a mechanical, I’m playing a fairy that I’ve played the fairy queen and I have now become a lover. And so, it’s special. It’s coming 360. I just turned thirty-two. So, it’s kind of like a lot of milestones are happening. I wish I could go back to a nine-year-old Renea and just give her a high five and say, you know, keep going.
Absolutely and happy birthday. Welcome to the 30’s. You’re welcome. And you’re such a busy actress especially since you’re just about to wrap up a month engagement at the Round House Theatre Silver Spring Maryland, with “Nollywood Dreams” playing Dede Okafor and I’m from what I understand it was your debut at theatre. What are some of your fondest memories of being at the Roundhouse theatre and playing DeDe?
This show is very significant to me as well, because it’s the first professional show that I have worked on with a, a black playwright, she’s Ghanaian with a black director, Raymond O. Caldwell, and a full black cast. And that doesn’t happen for me often. I’m used to doing a lot of classical work. And as we all know, it’s just recently that we’re sort of starting to reflect these classical stories with people who look like us.
And so that so that story is very it’s important to me, but it’s also been a gift. Jocelyn Bioh is the playwright. And Jocelyn has given me a gift again, it’s another milestone and, and rarely do I get to play comedic roles. So that’s I will say that’s a fond memory of mine and being able to make people laugh and have that have that freedom to just be goofy, be wild, be open and have people play with me on stage.
Now that you had your taste of calm of the comedy role, which might do more since you’ve been used to dramatic roles for several years.
Yeah, I think so. And I think I like tragedies just because they pull at the heartstrings more, I think, to me anyways, so I kind of you know, I like stories that are dark. I like stories that are dreadful. I don’t know why I do. But I respond to those more. With comedies, I think it’s because I’m starting to see “oh, people who look like me do get happy endings, and they can laugh, and they do get the girl or get the guy or fall in love or pursue their dreams”. I think they’re that lives more in in a comedy, such as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Things turn out all right, there are marriages, everyone’s happy.
I’m so glad to hear that you’re interested in comedic roles. I want to move on to your fascination of Shakespeare, especially when I read, you did thirty different roles. I had to do a double take when I read that. I want to know when did you realize your fascination with Mr. Shakespeare himself – the roles and the plays? Where did that begin?
I think it started early on with Midsummer, I think I felt I felt when I was nine, it felt cool to listen to these words that sounded familiar to me, because they sound like how The Bible is written. But this poetic language, I think it just made me feel larger than life to say these words. As I got older, I realized when Shakespeare wrote these words that they it was at a time when people would go off your word is your bond.
And nowadays, if I were to tell you, “Dean going to hell and I close my laptop case,” I think he’d be pretty upset about that, but nothing would happen to you or to me, but Shakespeare writes these words where you where you curse someone and you say, “I curse your lineage”. And people are afraid, and they you know that that may start a war that may cause a marriage to end because people were attached to their word. And I think that’s, that is what draws me is people mean what they say, if I say “I’m gonna go to the end of the earth to love you”, these characters literally do it. There’s no exaggeration. And that’s what I that’s what I admire about Shakespeare’s he wrote the words, and the characters mean, what they say.
I feel there’s some parallels with that when you mentioned about people mean what they say, especially in modern times with social media that what people text, what people type on Instagram or Instant messenger, and people take literally sometimes which is astonishing, but surreal at the same time. So, of all the plays you have read you have performed. Do you have a favorite amongst?
Why is that?
It’s a tragedy and a lot of people die but it’s, it’s an important story because at its at its most pure form, it’s a story about you have hurt me. So now I must hurt you ten times harder. And this cycle continues to go into, and it continues to go, and it doesn’t end until everyone is dead. And I think that shows us as Shakespeare describes in Hamlet is holding up a mirror to natures, it’s holding up a mirror to ourselves.
So, if we don’t end a violent cycle, if we don’t work towards ending racism, if we don’t agree with when people fall in love with each other, that they should be together. Or that people shouldn’t be kidnapped and taken to another country, and if that’s what the story reflects to me, that’s what I enjoy, and it’s not I will say it’s not one of Shakespeare’s best written stories. This was a this was an earlier play, but the story that it brings out, I enjoy that because we are in a time and it’s hard for us to get out of this endless cycle of violence.
And I think it’s important too for younger, younger kids to see that sort of story for me anyways. And it is brutal. There are terrible things that happen. I mean, there is there is rape there. And there are also things that sort of are outside of us that seem large that are terrible, like baking children into pie and having, you know, their mother eats it. I think it’s incredible. But it also reflects today’s it can reflect today’s time.
It does. I remember reading it back in high school and college and some of the themes that they carry. It resonates especially within the last decade of events that we’ve seen time and time again. Well, that leads me to a very good question I want to ask, because as you know, many people are daunted by classical theater, not myself, I love classical theater, because the language can be difficult.
And they think that the work that’s centuries old, cannot reflect on 21st century life. And you really touched on some points within the last conversation. I want you to share any tips for audience members who want to engage with these older works.
I’d recommend that they put the scripts down and come and see the work. That should be everyone’s way in. I also teach to, and I work with a lot of students, they may be their first time working on a Shakespeare play reading a Shakespeare play. I may be coming in a little later in the semester. And I’ll say, “so have you all read the play?” They’ll say, “Yeah, our teachers kind of like, you know, she read the book, she asked us this, this makes sense”. And we sort of kept going. And that is that maybe that is the first turn off there. That’s the first disconnect of, well, I don’t understand the words. And I don’t want to have to look up every single word that I don’t understand. So, forget it. And now I don’t like Shakespeare.
I think you must come and see it and come and hear it. Even context clues, we can have a conversation and you may say a word that I’m unfamiliar with, but in the context of a sentence, I can pick up if that is a positive or a negative word or if I need further explanation if I can connect the dots. I think it needs to be seen and I think it needs to be heard. My suggestion would be put the scripts down, put down SparkNotes and come and see a play.
I agree with you. 100%. How many years have you been teaching about?
Nice. Are you teaching locally in the DC area or where you’re teaching now?
Yes, I have taught for the Shakespeare Theatre Company for five of those seven years. I have taught elementary school, middle school high school and now where I like to live, is I’m teaching adults early to mid-level professionals or even adults who are who are just getting started into the arts more specifically, Shakespeare.
I love your Instagram handle, by the way, which is @theRealDarkLady which is a homage to the Dark Lady of the sonnets. I’m love it!
Thank you for getting it.
I love Shakespeare. So, when I saw this, I love it. I love it. It was so what spoke to you about making that your handle on Instagram.
I had a I had a fascination with who the Dark Lady was, I still do. And it all started if I could tell this story –
I was in undergrad, and I had, I was so excited that I was studying theater at this at this professional level. And so, I rushed through all my classes in the first two years all my theater requirements.
I was able to start taking class with the master’s program. And we were working on some monologues one day we were just we had a couple minutes to warm up. So, some people were stretching I was walking around saying lines out loud and I passed by a student and the text that he said was “she is as brown and hue as hazelnuts and sweeter than the kernels”. And I made some sort of comment, like, “oh my god, she’s just talking about me, you know, I’m brown and hue as hazelnuts” and, we had a full-on argument for about 10 minutes because he was like, “that’s not what he meant. That’s not what he meant”.
And so, after that blow up, that’s a whole story in and of itself, why it even got to that point. But I started searching for me, everywhere in Shakespeare, and I was still I was still sort of getting to know him. And I found myself in the sonnets. And I was like, “Oh, my gosh, these are love letters. He’s writing to me, he’s writing about me,” this is this is this love hate relationship that, that he’s written. It’s about us. And so, I started to go down this rabbit hole. And I have been working on this play about the Dark Lady and Shakespeare meeting, which is still not finished. The more time I have off, the more time that I will have to dedicate to that, but that was my that’s my fascination.
And so that just became my handle how I refer to myself outside of my name. Oh, I’m the real dark lady. but I’m happy that you got that. Because some people are like, oh, I get it, because you know, you’re dark. And I’m like, sure, but it’s Shakespeare’s Dark Lady.
Absolutely. Well, I’m a fan of Shakespeare and to get that reference.
Yes. Thank you, Dean.
What would you say to the person who’s never seen Shakespeare live and it’s coming to this play, which starts on July 12th? What advice would you give them to prep?
I think I would tell them to come in with an open mind and an open mouth. And what I mean by that is, we don’t want anyone sitting in the audience with their with their hands folded and their mouth closed and sort of nodding as things go along. We want you to react to us, we want you to say “What!?!” We want you to gasp we want you to laugh. We want you to cry.
I think that that too is something else that when you open yourself up to receive, you’re also giving because it’s a very different audience when people are like I’m supposed to obey the rules. I’m supposed to be quiet and just watch the show versus when you know, when we’re talking to you Shakespeare, he breaks the fourth wall when we’re speaking to you. We want you to nod your head we want you to engage you two are a part of this story. So, my advice would be to come with an open mind and open heart and be ready to play a character.
We got to have the interactivity, especially in live theater, considering we have gone almost a year and a half without any live theater. And it feels good to have it back once more. My last question is since as I was researching you and looking on your Instagram, I’ve noticed you have a lot of quotes passages from Shakespeare on your posts which one is your absolute go to?
It changes it changes so often depend depending on what I’m working on and or where I am in my life and that’s a great question. This is going to sound very silly. Right now, at this moment. I think my favorite quote is, “It shall be so” and that comes from Coriolanus, and I think I am saying that because at where I am in my life, and I mentioned this at my, on my birthday that I’m in “Nollywood Dreams” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, this is to your dreams.
I think when I commit to believing in myself, and what things I can manifest, me saying, it shall be so it’s going to happen, it’s going to be done. And which is also a part of my work when I teach students is there’s a distance there already. I can’t do that. I can’t understand that. I can’t see myself doing it. And it starts with you believing in yourself even though that sounds cliché, but it starts with you believing in yourself. And when you get to a point saying I know this thing is going to happen, then it does things start to fall into place. I think today on June 29th, my favorite Shakespeare quote is “It shall be So from Coriolanus.
Sounds good and something tells me if we ever meet in person, it may be something different, but we’re gonna keep at that!
And you can catch Renea on “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” at the National Building Museum starting to July 12th – August 28th. Tickets may be purchased through the Folger theatre box office at folger.edu/theater or call (202) 544-7077 or you can get tickets at the National Building’s Visitor Center Thursday through Monday from 11am through 4pm.
And if you still want to catch her before Midsummer Night’s Dream, She’s at the Round House Theatre for “Nollywood Dreams” until July 3rd
Stay tuned as I give you my interview with fellow Midsummer actor Rotimi Agbabiaka