It is Pistol that says in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, “Why, then the world’s mine oyster, which I with sword shall open.” Jocelyn Bioh embodies the spirit of this quote as she uses her pen as a tool to dismantle traditional theatre and rebuild a more inclusive and equitable stage. The Ghanaian-American playwright is at the helm of writing a new adaptation of the classic for The Public Theater’s free outdoor summer series, Shakespeare In the Park. As a comedy writer, her plays explore the lighthearted side of women that holds equal weight to the more saturated dramatic arts scene. Her critically-acclaimed original play, School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play, is just one of her many contributions to the theatre that offers a brilliantly comedic look into the lives of women of color; in particular African women. We sat down for a chat about her work with The Public Theater, her hopes for Broadway when it reopens, what it means to be a Black female creative in the midst of the pandemic, and more.
How did the partnership between you and The Public begin?
It’s actually more of a partnership between Saheem [Ali], the newly appointed Associate Artistic Director for The Public Theater, and I. He and I have been creative collaborators for many, many years. We’ve done plays together. We’re developing a musical together. We’re working on a film project right now. So he approached me about this idea to remake Merry Wives and said, “I think you’d be great to do it…are you down?” And I said, “yeah!” Ironically, as an actor, The Public Theater was the first theater I ever worked professionally in, and it was a play called Neighbors by Brandon Jacob Jenkins (circa 2011). It was a really fun experience, and I was thrilled to get my Equity Card at The Public. So we have a long history because they started my career off.
Does The Public choose which work they do for Shakespeare in the Park, or did you have a hand in the decision? What is your experience with Shakespeare?
I believe The Public, in recent years, is always trying to find new and inventive ways to do some kind of more rare Shakespearean plays. So I think they were circling Merry Wives, and from what I understand, Saheem was ruminating on how to update that play. I had to think about it because Shakespeare is something that kind of eluded me. I was discouraged from pursuing any classical work when I was an undergrad. I went to Ohio State and spoke very candidly about how their program cast a type and limited many of the roles people of color in the program could be in. I was told I was too urban and that my New York accent was not appropriate for the Shakespearean text. That’s part of the reason I fell into playwriting. I took a course to compensate for the credits I wasn’t getting. I’ve never been in it, and I’ve only ever enjoyed it. I had to read the play myself to make sure I was approaching it with a full understanding. So it feels like a nice and weird full-circle moment that my Shakespearean debut is something I am adapting and bending to my cultural specificity and comedic voice.
How does it feel being a woman of color helming one of the inaugural productions for The Public post-pandemic?
I felt really moved by people’s tweets and direct messages to me about feelings of hope and how much joy it brought them to know that theatre was coming back and that the first theatre they would see is with people who look like them. I have been living in this space in the last year with the pandemic and the racial reckoning that’s happening in our country, and it’s a lot to process alone in your home. So I felt very overwhelmed by the thought that I would be bringing joy and hope into people’s lives again after a year of not feeling that.
Your work highlights the intentional role that women, especially women of color, play in the arts. Is there a connection between School Girls…, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and other projects you are currently working on?
Well, I think I always have Black women, particularly African women, at the center of all of my work. I always want them to be strong yet vulnerable, unique, and have different perspectives that people have never seen before. I want them to be empowered in their funny. It’s so rare that we get opportunities to see ourselves be fun and funny and living earnestly in that. Viola is probably really funny, but rarely have we seen her in anything comedic. She’s a brilliant dramatic actress, but I love the opportunity of centering and empowering Black women in something that is funny and brings joy. It’s still poignant and still has a message. It’s not frivolous silliness. That’s always going to be a throughline in all of my work. I hope something doesn’t happen to me and I lose the funny (laughter).
In either case, what draws you to this particular work, and what can audiences expect in the updated version?
What’s great about Merry Wives is that it is a comedy, and I’m a comedic writer, so we’re working hand in hand here, me and “Billy.” What people can expect, honestly, is largely still true to the play. I’m not completely blowing up all the Shakespearean text. It’s Shakespeare In the Park, so I still want people to come and enjoy that. I feel like there’s an opportunity to change it [the words]; adapt it, find a new way to say it, flip words that feel more authentic so that it lands on the tongue better for someone probably saying it in a West African dialect. Black joy is an act of rebellion, and we need that. I want it to be a very celebratory experience, and it should be filled with joy. Recognition of what we’ve been through, but still a lot of joy.
How have you been staying creative during the pandemic?
I’ve had work to do! I do have film and tv stuff that has balanced me, so I do feel very blessed to have still kept working. But, in the moments emotionally when I just couldn’t in May and June  where it felt impossible to do any work, I just didn’t. I allowed myself space and time to heal and deal. Most Black people are familiar with the latter, and to be able to do both simultaneously, as best I could, was nice. Creatively I was able to flip the space when I could. The opportunity to work at my own pace is one I’ve never been afforded, so I took advantage of it.
What are your hopes for Broadway and American theatre when it officially reopens?
Well, I hope that Broadway doesn’t look the same way it did when it shut down. It would make me sad if we just went to business as usual, considering all of the things I hope we’ve all learned. I hope it’s a different Broadway. We have to be on the pulse and tell new stories. I’ve never even heard of using African accents for Shakespearean texts. So that’s the reinventing of the wheel we’re talking about here. It’s about really adding new spokes. We understand what works. We understand what’s great. So how do we paint that wheel, put some glitter on it, add some color, and make this thing new and fresh so that it feels like we’re on a new ride every single time? That’s what I hope Merry Wives is going to do. And I hope the other guards of the gate, especially Broadway, will notice: We’re the culture…we’re not part of the culture, we ARE the culture. Black Twitter IS Twitter. We make Tik Tok. We make everything. We are the pulse, and if you’re not with that, then I don’t know where you are.
What words do you have for your audience?
I want them to feel invited to the experience. I want them to feel invited to the party because everyone is. As for the takeaway, I want them to feel seen. I want anyone and everyone to come to see it, but if I were a club bouncer, I’d be like (jokingly), “POC in first, and if we got anybody left, it’ll be $20.” I think it’s super important that we be at the front of the line because there’s been a lot of Black trauma in the theatre community that has been shared in this time bravely. Our voices are louder now than they’ve ever been, and we are not turning down the volume. So I hope everybody’s there and it’s just a big ole Black party in the park. We love parties in the park!
Saheem Ali released the following statement about the production and his partnership with The Public and Jocelyn Bioh:
“Merry Wives will be set among immigrants of the African diaspora living just north of Central Park. After the political and social upheaval of our recent past, I can think of no better way to reopen The Delacorte than with a production that celebrates New York’s immigrant community, of which I am a proud member, and centers radical Black joy with this glorious Shakespeare comedy. I’m also thrilled to be partnering with my creative sister Jocelyn Bioh, who will be adapting the play. Jocelyn and I have worked together over the years on new plays and musicals. We have a shared vision of expanding the scope of African stories on American stages, and I’m beyond excited to have her reimagining a classical play with her brilliant touch.”
Free Shakespeare in the Park has begun with MERRY WIVES, a fresh and joyous adaptation by Jocelyn Bioh of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. So get down to Central Park; the show runs until September 18th.
Set in South Harlem, amidst a vibrant and eclectic community of West African immigrants, MERRY WIVES is a New York story about tricks of the heart, performed in the heart of the City—Central Park’s magical Delacorte Theater. A raucous spinoff featuring the Bard’s most beloved comic characters, this hilarious farce tells the story of the trickster Falstaff and the wily wives who outwit him in a new celebration of Black joy, laughter, and vitality.