Interview: Rebecca Naomi Jones on Returning to As You Like It at the Delacorte
Over Labor Day weekend of 2017, the Public Theater welcomed hundreds of New Yorkers to the stage of the Delacorte Theater in Central Park for the world premiere of Shaina Taub and Laurie Woolery's musical adaptation of Shakespeare's As You Like It. Part of the Public Works series, As You Like It featured only a handful of professional actors; the rest of the roles were filled out by these citizens from across the five boroughs, from every walk of life.
Five years later, the Public is giving the musical a revival as part of the free Shakespeare the Park series, with a cast just as large. At the center once again is Broadway vet Rebecca Naomi Jones, who returns to the role of Rosalind/Ganymede, which she originated a half-decade ago and now marks her first theater production sine the pandemic. Here, she tells us what it means to her.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What is it like to return to As You Like It five years later?
This is one of those pieces that is at once specific, story-wise, and then universal emotionally. Shaina's lyrics are heartbreaking. She's got that thing that I also attribute to Michael Friedman, the late great, which is this ability to dazzle you with fun and quirkiness and memorable melodies, and then turns it on its head and drops you into this emotional truth center.
I'm It's kind of a dreamy experience to come back to my first full production since 2019 with this show. There's all kinds of nerves and anxiety that comes along with putting a show together. You want to do your best but don't have all the answers right away and all that stuff. But there's this beautiful thing happening now. When I feel stressed and like "I'm not gonna remember this," we work on something and it all comes flooding back.
I think so many of us performers wish that we could go back to shows and roles that we've done before, so I'm very aware that I'm getting the gift I always wish for. But I'm also a different person. We're all changed people, in general, after five years, but especially after the last few. I feel like I'm stepping back into this beautiful little pocket of love that was so great before and is still so great, and there are so many things that are familiar, with I have additional perspective and maturity and gratitude. We're getting to dig even deeper and getting to do it longer. It's a wonderful trip.
It must be so wild to go from doing no theater for three years to doing theater with a cast of 100.
It's weird, and it's also perfect. I think the fact that it's not a cast of hundreds of theater professionals, that it's all different people from all different walks of life, is really special, especially after the last few years. One of the things I definitely always knew, but has been clarified very specifically, is that I'm really grateful for is community. That is so deeply present here. It doesn't feel like "This is a lot of people." It feels like a beautiful family. I usually describe Public Works in general as distilling the Public's mission statement down to theater by the people for the people, and you really experience that when you see these shows. There's a certain lyric in the piece that stick out to me: "Do not fear/all are welcome here." It's about community.
How would you describe your take on Rosalind in As You Like It, and how have you noticed that it has changed or deepened since you did the show five years ago?
Something that stands out for me is that, yes, we get to see Rosalind's resilience as she adopts a new identity – Ganymede – in order to safely join the other exiled people in the forest, and yes, we get to see her stretch out and play within this new identity as she becomes Orlando's love coach — but what I think is really special is that we also get to share the moment when, right when she's about to get her Shakespearean comedy happy ending, Rosalind realizes that in order to truly get what she wants, she has to be brave enough to find out who she might be when the costume comes off and she's just herself.
I used to see Ganymede simply as a necessary stop on the route of Rosalind's evolution, a very important stop along that route, but ultimately a means to an end. But now I see how Ganymede truly teaches Rosalind who she might be. And how ultimately she's a coalescence of who she was back in the courts and who she is in the forest of Arden.
Another thing that's deepened for me is the reality of the high stakes circumstances in this story. I think the threat of displacement feels more present to me now. The idea that due to a quick and massive upheaval in government a lot of people suddenly fear for their safety, that all feels more tangible to me. The truth is that in 2017 when we first did this show it was frighteningly timely, but after these last few years I guess maybe I'm just more willing to be present with those circumstances.
Why is the Public Works series vital to the theatrical makeup of New York City?
You cannot see a Public Works show and remain wholly cynical. This community will shake you out of your head and away from your to-do lists and remind you that you are a part of something great.