Q&A WITH KAREN ANN DANIELS AND PATRICIA MCGREGOR BY JESSICA ALVAREZ
COMMUNAL JOY IN TIMES OF COMMUNAL GRIEF.
Mobile Unit’s SUMMER OF JOY was conceived in a winter of hardships. The pandemic still ravaged the city, shutdowns still bludgeoned the theater world, and yet, Karen Ann Daniels, director of Mobile Unit, began conceiving a production with the hope that Mobile Unit would be able to perform it live throughout NYC.
“The initial idea was: how do I build something that can be responsive to the circumstances?” said Daniels.
Shifting policies made any concrete details seem premature, and yet Daniels and Mobile Unit forged ahead. Guiding her work by exploring the resilience, grief, healing, and joy of the human condition through the lens of Shakespeare, Daniels sought out collaborators who connected with these themes and could handle the mercurial nature of the production.
Patricia McGregor, conceiver and director of Shakespeare: Call and Response, recalled that they had to “get creative with the parameters.” Brainstorming, workshopping, and rehearsing, first virtually and then in-person, all had their own setbacks and required innovation in overcoming them. Through this, the sense of community the production built anchored them through to the first performance
“In this work,” Daniels recalled, “the lesson has always been building community.”
This is no truer than when looking at SUMMER OF JOY as a whole. Three shows are performed on one stage (Shakespeare: Call and Response, Verses @ Work – The Abridged Mix, and National Black Theatre’s STAGE FOR HEALING AND RESILIENCE), and yet, with influences ranging from the buskers of city parks to the Virgin Islands’ Carnival to the history of hip-hop to Shakespeare himself, it is clear that community involvement is the spectacle, marrying the production together.
With SUMMER OF JOY, Daniels wanted to push Mobile Unit towards “inviting the community into the work in a much more intentional way.” SUMMER OF JOY does this by encouraging audience participation. When choosing actors for Shakespeare: Call and Response, McGregor “wanted the actors to be shapeshifters,” always adapting to audience feedback in real time to create singular, unique performances, even if audience members don’t watch the whole production.
“Nobody is obligated to stay,” McGregor stated when speaking about how performing in plazas lends itself to the temporal nature of the performance.
Yet, the magic of the production lies when the audience chooses to stay to share in the joy of journeying through the performance. Daniels stated, “You can’t plan how people will respond to the work. It’s beautiful.
The production strives to make Shakespeare’s work accessible for the community. “It can’t just be, we’re going to take out the old white European male [Shakespeare] to save the day here,” Daniels stated as she spoke about the process of ensuring the production would strive “to evolve with the community and the people and the time” throughout.
Amid the hardships of the pandemic and racial tensions, SUMMER OF JOY seeks to allow, as McGregor stated, “space for grief.”
During Shakespeare: Call and Response, the audience is asked to rewrite part of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 29” to fit their needs. This sonnet details how love can provide relief in times of hardships.
Mobile Unit’s SUMMER OF JOY is the revised sonnet in motion.
As laughter ripples through the audience, as people interact with actors in real time, as plazas bustle with something other than gnawing fear, SUMMER OF JOY becomes less of a play title and becomes more of a manifestation.
Yet, the true magic of the production lies when the audience chooses to stay and share in the joy of being in community and journey through the performance.
Mobile Unit’s SUMMER OF JOY ran from July 31 to August 29, 2021. More Mobile Unit programming will come in our upcoming 2021-2022 season.
Jessica Alvarez is a writer, a traveler, an educator, and a consumer of all things related to queer media. You can find her on Twitter @jessicaealvarez.
This piece was developed with the BIPOC Critics Lab, a new program founded by Jose Solís training the next generation of BIPOC journalists. Follow on Twitter: @BIPOCCriticsLab.