Interview: 32 Years Later, Sharon Washington Returns to the Delacorte in Richard III

Washington shares her memories of doing this tough Shakespeare play decades ago, as she takes on a new role in it now.

Thirty-two years ago, Sharon Washington was part of one of those free Shakespeare in the Park productions that has become part of theatrical lore: Richard III. Directed by Robin Phillips of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Washington played Lady Anne, opposite a to-die-for cast led by Denzel Washington in the title role, Daniel Davis as Buckingham, and Mary Alice as Queen Margaret.

Now, Washington is back onstage at the Delacorte in the same play, but a different role. In Robert O'Hara's new production for the Public Theater, which features Danai Gurira in the title role, Washington is stepping into Alice's shoes, taking on the role of Margaret. It's a blast from the past from this New York stage regular, while also a good representation of the theatrical future.

Sharon Washington as Queen Margaret in Richard III
Sharon Washington as Queen Margaret in Richard III
(© Joan Marcus)

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Your last time at the Delacorte was in this same play, 32 years ago, and you played Lady Anne. How does it feel to be back, even though you're in a different role this time?
Honestly, it feels that long, but it doesn't feel that long at all. I can't quite believe it. Although, there are some kids in the ensemble who were like, "Wow! You were in that production?" and I was like, "Thanks, now I feel ancient." But I've learned to really enjoy and relish that. Heather Alicia Simms, who plays Queen Elizabeth, said she remembered seeing me as Anne and thinking, "Wow, there's a brown girl who's up there in these great costumes." Which is actually how I ended up on the stage at the Public — I saw somebody who looked like me when Mr. Papp was doing it. I remember Jonelle Allen and all those actors who came before me.

Can you talk a little bit about that production in relation to this one?
It was the summer that Morgan Freeman and Tracey Ullman did a sort of Western, tumbleweed production of Taming of the Shrew and ours was the classical production. Mr. Papp was still alive, and we were part of him doing the whole canon. So it was Denzel Washington, Danny Davis. Tim Blake Nelson was one of the murderers. Robin Phillips was the director, and he was running the Stratford Festival at the time, so it was a very traditional rendering. I'm stepping into the shoes of the legendary Mary Alice, so I bring her onstage with me every night. I remember it being full length and rushing to have to get out of the park by midnight.

How does it compare to Robert O'Hara's new production?
This one is much more deconstructed. It's not your traditional Shakespeare. And because it's the 60th anniversary season, I think he and Oskar Eustis really wanted this production to embody Mr. Papp's ideal of Shakespeare specifically for New York City. We've got Danai Gurira, who's just fierce, and there's not a minute you don't believe her. Most of the company looks like people you haven't seen onstage in a long time, and many of the characters are differently abled. The Duchess is played by a wonderful actress named Monique Holt, who signs her performance, because that's the world Robert has created. Ali Stroker is playing my old part, and how cool is it to have an Anne played by a wonderful actor who happens to be in a wheelchair? And when young people in wheelchairs come see the show, they'll see that representation. She's a spitfire, man.

Sharon Washington with Denzel Washington in the 1990 free Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard III
Sharon Washington with Denzel Washington in the 1990 free Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard III
(© Martha Swope/New York Public Library for the Performing Arts)

Are you still rushing to beat the clock?
We were aiming for two hours with no intermission, but it's one of the longest plays in the canon, so we would just have to start cutting characters, which wasn't going to happen. So it's two-40, with a 20-minute intermission, which is comparatively lean and breezy. Robert said he wanted it like a political thriller because Richard is such a luscious villain and Robert has leaned into that. There's blood and fights and music. It's very exciting.

What is it like for you to step into the shoes of Mary Alice, and to come back to this play with all of your history?
It's extraordinary. I thought of myself as semi-retired after I did Feeding the Dragon, because it was great and I told my story. It would have to be something really special to get me back onstage eight times a week. When this came around, even though it was the summer and I've moved to the country, I thought to myself, "Are you crazy? You're going to get to do Queen Margaret in the Park?" The role is to die for. She comes in and she hits it and curses everybody. But to have watched Mary Alice do it, there's no way I couldn't have done it. Not only do I feel like I'm passing the torch on, I feel like I am keeping her with me and bringing history with me when I step onstage. It's fantastic and empowering.

Is it worth giving up the country for a couple months?
I was just telling my husband, when I come out onstage and start saying, "Can curses pierce the clouds and enter heaven?," I can look up and actually see the clouds, and the wind starts blowing. And I'm like, "Come on! Really?" I'm having a blast.