Zenzi Williams plays Henry in the Public Theater's Mobile Unit production of Shakespeare's Henry V, a program that offers free productions of a Shakespeare play throughout community centers in all five boroughs of New York. Below, Williams writes about the process of finding her Henry and how every day, with every new audience, she finds him all over again.
When I sat down for my first rehearsal, there was what I knew about Henry and there was the unknown. I came into the room armed with my instincts while leaving the door open to whatever I would find in the rehearsal room. The Henry I've found is a reflection of those instincts, coupled with the brilliance of my castmates, the vision of my director, my research, and ultimately who I meet in each performance space.
I walk into performances and I never know what I'll learn about Henry that day. Each audience tells me something different. They will tell me what they like or dislike. They will tell Henry when he's been betrayed and what they think of that betrayal, or when Henry is wrong or right. They hold nothing back, nor should they.
When I walk into the room and the carpet is set, the music ends, and my colleagues are ready; I open my eyes and the first lines of the play are spoken. This is where all of my homework, all of my preparation and preconceived notions of what others will think about who is playing Henry V are no longer relevant. It's the moment right before I say my first words that it all disappears and my true focus becomes clear: the people and the story.
I've watched the faces of people in the audience and observed what they react to. Some of the people we are performing for are in their most raw forms — circumstance, family life, controlled or uncontrolled actions that may separate us from one another — but we are all human beings who are ready for art, ready for laughter, for freedom, and for change. Though their situations and circumstances may not be like my own, the moment the world of the play opens, we are all on this ride together. We are all searching for more — for some semblance of peace, even if for a moment.
This Henry is not done yet. Every day I'm seeing Henry through the eyes of others, and so the process deepens. Henry famously says, "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers, he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother." And this is true of what takes place in each community I perform in. We are bonded by this experience.
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