Folger Theatre’s Reading Room Series
From Folger’s Reading Room 2023: The reading of Emily Lyon and Reynaldo Piniella’s Hamlet; courtesy Folger Theatre; Credit: Peggy Ryan

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There have already been several notable William Shakespeare productions in D.C. this year. From Folger Theatre and Round House Theatre’s sold-out co-production of The Tempest to Shakespeare Theatre Company’s quirky reimagining of Much Ado About Nothing (not to mention STC’s forthcoming presentation of King Lear headed by Patrick Page of Hadestown’s Broadway fame), local audiences are used to witnessing the Bard’s work in a new light. 

But while audiences may never doubt the importance of the classics, what of the many queer, women, and BIPOC playwrights whose work is sidelined to create space for yet another Shakespearean revival? Held at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation in Northeast, Folger Shakespeare Library’s inaugural Reading Room Series committed to showcase timely, accessible dramas, while pushing back on the oppressive realities of the White, Eurocentric theatrical canon. The three-day series, which ran Jan. 19 through 21, managed to celebrate and challenge Shakespeare’s existing body of work.

Folger commissioned four original works by new and established playwrights alike. Each of the four plays were uniquely inspired by a work of Shakespeare, but the newly developed scripts did more than translate the folio as it stands. While still embracing Shakespeare’s many contributions to drama and verse, each new play boldly resisted their source’s elitist, racist, and misogynist undertones.

Before each reading, Folger Artistic Director Karen Ann Daniels invited the audience to “engage with the journey” of these plays in their various stages of development. Some of the presentations were rawer than others, and Daniels reminded audiences to consider the vulnerability involved when a playwright shares an unfinished work. For this reason, Daniels invited questions, considerations, and feedback from the audience, and framed it as a conversation between artists and the community. 

The series began with a Spanish translation of Hamlet by Emily Lyon and Reynaldo Piniella. Set in 21st-century Harlem, Lyon and Piniella’s translation unearths the subcultures of Hamlet, urging audiences to recognize whose stories are not told in Shakespeare’s most famous text. It was staged as a collection of excerpts, with Piniella stepping into the role of Hamlet and offering an insidious, but enticing interpretation of the Danish prince.

The following night, audiences saw a reading of Our Verse in Time to Come, written by Malik Work and Folger’s own Daniels. Perhaps the most “unfaithful” adaptation of the four, Our Verse in Time to Come demonstrates what it means to contribute to a canon, rather than merely pull from it. The play is both a celebration of Shakespeare’s work and a critical indictment of its exclusivity, challenging that “such rhymes and rhythms may predate the Bard, and belong to an older and more ancient cultural collective memory.” It was incredibly promising, and Daniels hinted that audiences have a good chance of seeing it return to the stage this spring.

The next play of the series was Al Letson’s Julius X. Writing Malcolm X into the role of Julius Caesar, Letson’s civil rights-era adaptation evokes the old adage, “those who are not familiar with history are doomed to repeat it.” It is rare for a staged reading to solicit a standing ovation in the way that a fully staged production might. Letson’s play was an emphatic exception to this rule.

Lauren Gunderson’s A Room in the Castle concluded the Reading Room Series. A work in co-development with Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, Gunderson’s take on the women of Hamlet attracted a surprisingly robust audience of young—mostly women—theater enthusiasts. As if speaking directly to this audience, A Room in the Castle engaged humor and vulnerability to ask: However faithful you may be to the works of the past, will you be bold enough to write your own ending?

As artists and audience members gathered in the halls of the church to celebrate these new works, they were reminded of Folger Shakespeare Library’s much more visually prominent “work in progress.” Folger anticipates that the renovation of its 1932 building will be completed later this year. That’s why its past several theatrical productions have assumed various other locales, including community centers, churches, museums, other libraries, and, of course, virtual spaces. 

Lack of a permanent home certainly brings challenges, but if we are to frame the restoration of the building as a process for the sake of progress, the unfinished library has indeed opened more doors than it has closed. With newfound extensions into a community, Folger has reaffirmed its commitment to cultivating new audiences and championing BIPOC theater artists. While patrons and community members are looking forward to its impending reopening, the Reading Room Series reminds us that Shakespeare in our community must similarly exist somewhere beyond the iron gates of the canon.