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Interview: Susan Kelechi Watson on Bringing Theater Back to New York in Merry Wives

Watson, one of the stars of NBC's This Is Us, takes the stage at the Delacorte in Jocelyn Bioh's new Shakespeare adaptation, directed by Saheem Ali.

The opportunity to star in a production at Central Park's Delacorte Theater as part of the Public's free Shakespeare in the Park series is a prospect no actor wants to turn down. When it's one of the first shows to take the stage following the pandemic shutdown, and a new adaptation by one of the country's hottest playwrights, it's even more enticing.

Despite the uncertainty that comes with doing live performances in the time of Covid, Susan Kelechi Watson couldn't say no to spending her hiatus from This Is Us in Jocelyn Bioh's adaptation of Merry Wives, directed by Saheem Ali. Bioh's version sets the Shakespearean sex comedy in contemporary Harlem and is a celebration of the African Diaspora. Watson plays one of the two merry wives — Madam Nkechi Ford, who teams up with Madam Ekua Page to outwit the lecherous Falstaff — and, she says, it's a real joy to be having fun every night after a difficult year.

Jacob Ming-Trent and Susan Kelechi Watson in Merry Wives at the Delacorte Theater
(© Joan Marcus)

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How did you come to be in Merry Wives, and what has the experience been like so far?
I was offered the role and when I thought about how I wanted to spend my summer, I wanted to do something that would bring theater back to New York, which is so important. Also, it's one of the great New York things. It's so iconic and it's an actor's dream to be a part of Shakespeare in the Park at least once. This was a great opportunity to do that. I loved that we were celebrating the African Diaspora and Harlem, and the fact that it's a comedy, which can bring people joy and lift people up after the last year and a half, just felt so right. They just kept encouraging us to play, and I'm really proud of what we've done with it. I love the fun I get to have with it every night.

It feels like home to be able to do something like this. The Black Diaspora has so many different cultures and to be able to learn about the Nigerian and Ghanian culture is what's been so exciting. We have many Nigerians and Ghanians in the cast, and I get to learn their dialect, and I wanted to do a really good job. Being Jamaican American, I know what it's like when people butcher a specific dialect. It's like nails on a chalkboard. So I was really trying to get it as close as possible to what it actually sounds like. My Netflix queue was straight up like I live in Lagos. So many Nigerian movies and Nollywood movies. It became the only thing I watched for two months. I was trying to hear the sounds of it and see the mannerisms.

The Shakespearean text sits so beautifully with the various Nigerian and Ghanaian dialects.
It does, because Shakespeare's text is very active, and the way Nigerians and Ghanaians speak, there's an activeness in their dialect. It's very forward. It feels like its moving something when they speak. They pronounce every syllable, which in itself makes the language very active. I find that in the Black Diaspora, something very similar about it is that we do use language. It's not passive. Words are chosen specifically because they give a certain energy, and that's what happens in Shakespeare. When those two things meet, it makes things easier.

What does it mean to you to be part of this production, which helps usher theater back to New York City?
I really was so sad about the fact that theater had to go away. I was sad because people couldn't see theater, but I was sad for the theater community itself, all of my people who depend on theater for health care and the opportunity to do what they do every day. To have that just go away and not know when it was coming back was a lot. To drive though Times Square and just see a ghost town was crazy.

One of the first people I remember texting about it was Jocelyn. I said to her, "Girl, what are people doing right now?" I was in LA at the time. And she was like, "I don't know! A lot of people are moving or zooming everything and trying to do online readings." But theater isn't theater unless it's in a theater. It's just not the same. That's not to say those things don't have their own merit — you have to find a way — but theater, in the way it's meant to be, is in community, with a live audience. To be part of what's bringing it back felt like it was coming full circle for me. And we're just having a great time doing it.

Pascale Armand and Susan Kelechi Watson in Merry Wives at the Delacorte Theater
(© Joan Marcus)