Last summer Jacob Ming-Trent received rave reviews for his portrayal of Falstaff in Merry Wives at the outdoor Delacorte Theater in New York City’s Central Park. If you missed it, you’re getting a second chance now. A recording of the popular Shakespeare in the Park production is premiering May 20 on PBS’s Great Performances.
Playwright Jocelyn Bioh’s critically acclaimed adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor is set in South Harlem where immigrants of the West African diaspora are living side-by-side with their African American neighbors. Directed by The Public’s Associate Artistic Director and Resident Director Saheem Ali, the production features an all-black cast.
This summer Jacob Ming-Trent (whom audiences might also recognize from shows like Only Murders in the Building and Watchmen) will be taking the stage as Bottom in Folger Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the National Building Museum, beginning July 12. Below, he answers a few questions about Shakespeare’s comedy and his rollicking roles.
What was your favorite scene playing Falstaff in Merry Wives?
Well, the laundry room scene is a classic. The audience loves watching a large Falstaff get into a small laundry basket. And if the audience loves it, I love it! That’s the comedian in me.
Certain elements of Shakespeare’s comedies have the potential to fall a little flat with 21st century audiences; something that his original audiences might have found very funny sometimes fails to connect with audiences today. Can you share an example of how you handle that as an actor?
Ooooh, I could write a two-hundred-page book on this question. When I’m playing one of Shakespeare’s clowns my job is to make a modern audience laugh. Not an Elizabethan audience. I love Shakespeare but he’s dead. The audience is alive, thank god I’m alive. When I step on the stage in a Shakespeare play, I want to celebrate and contemplate what it is to be human. Human in 2022. So if Shakespeare wrote a joke that’s no longer funny I would be a FOOL (HAHA) not to try what I could to make that joke work, either by changing a word or adding a contemporary cultural reference. An example: instead of Falstaff saying to Ford “I shall hang like a meteor over the cuckold’s horns” which can be hard for an audience to understand in the moment I changed it to “I shall hang like Lebron James over the cuckold’s horns.” Some Shakespearean scholars would attack me for this, but again I don’t come to the theater to pay homage to Shakespeare, I come to connect with a living breathing community.
What are you most looking forward to about playing Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream this summer?
Surprising people, shocking people, making people laugh, smile and think. This is my first time playing Bottom. It’s gonna be a great time!
Do you see any points of connection between Falstaff and Bottom – or notable contrasts?
Of course, all Shakespeare characters are in conversation with each other. Bottom has things in common with Hamlet. Ask me this again at the end of the summer. I’m sure I’ll have some deep reflections on Bottom and Falstaff’s point of connections, hahahaha. But I will offer this, Bottom and Falstaff are very passionate very serious men. That’s what makes them funny.
If you were able to send a short letter to Shakespeare back in time, what would you say to him? Any complaints, compliments, or requests?
I would be brief.
Dear Mr. Shakespeare,
Thank you! Your plays have enriched my life, they’ve saved my life. Thank you sir.
p.s. I’ve rewritten a few of your jokes from time to time, cause the ones you wrote are not funny anymore. Hope you’re cool with that!