Our next stop in my coverage of U.S. regional theater is the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival (HVSF). The outdoor Festival is based in Garrison, New York, about an hour north of Manhattan. Their latest production is The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington, written by James Ijames (Fat Ham) and directed by Taylor Reynolds. In the play, set on Christmas Eve in 1800, we find Martha Washington at Mount Vernon ill with a fever. Since George Washington’s will frees the enslaved people upon Martha’s death, it’s far from an ordinary evening of tending to her sickbed as the chorus of enslaved people brings up questions about slavery and America’s history.
Lamentable Trial runs at the HVSF from now through July 30. If you can’t make the trip out to Garrison, NY, there is an option to tune in virtually through HVSF at Home.
I spoke recently with actor Tyler Fauntleroy about his debut season with HVSF and how he prepared for his role in Lamentable Trial. Some of Fauntleroy’s theater credits include Looking for Leroy at the New Federal Theatre, Romeo and Juliet at the Westport Country Playhouse, and 1 Henry IV at the Folger Theatre.
Since we both grew up in Virginia, I was wondering if you’ve ever been to Mount Vernon.
I haven’t been to Mount Vernon. I’ve been to Yorktown and Jamestown many times and Williamsburg, but never Mount Vernon.
Why did you want to become an actor?
The story that I’ve told when people ask me that question – the reason I’m an actor I can accredit to many things. I would say the genesis of it is the movie Toy Story. As a child I was obsessed with the film, and I knew every in and out of it. I would reenact the story to whoever would listen, or even if they weren’t listening, here’s Toy Story. I had every toy from the movie, and I’d recreate the whole story in my room.
That love for storytelling was always in me, even if I didn’t know acting was where it would lead me. I did singing at church, but acting hadn’t come about for me until middle school. One of my best friends was doing a show. My mom begged me to audition for it, but I said absolutely not. I was shy and scared of my own shadow.
I remember sitting there at the show so captivated and so in awe of what happened onstage. What killed me was I’m 11, you all are 11 or 12, I see you all at lunch, at gym, but you’re making me feel things. I was confused by that. What is this feeling? At that moment, I would say that this feeling I felt is what I want to give to other people. Be wrapped up in a story and the spectacle.
What’s important for actors to keep in mind when they’re performing Shakespeare?
The sooner you take him off the pedestal in your mind, the more fun you’ll have. I’ve had many conversations with young actors, especially with actors of color, of how Shakespeare can be very intimidating. Some actors of color feel culturally it’s not for them. The sooner you take him off the pedestal and continue to bring yourself to whatever character you play in his shows, that’s when you free yourself up and have the most fun. The sooner you demystify and not see his work as the highest echelon of art, you can be real and vulnerable to play these larger than life characters.
Congratulations on this debut season you’re having with HVSF. How’s it been going?
Thank you. It’s been a blast. I was not prepared for how amazing this summer would be. The year that we’re coming back to live theater after having such a year off has been truly special. I have to say that Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival has gone above and beyond to make the cast and crew feel safe and seen. It’s not typically something you might be used to in the American theater and a lot of places. The fact they’ve gone above and beyond to make sure we feel cared for, especially doing such heavy material like Lamentable Trial, I feel great support. The atmosphere of community that’s created here in Lamentable Trial, and The Tempest makes it that much more fun to do the work. It’s been incredible.
What struck you about the script when you first started working your way through it?
For me, it was the perfect blend of then and now: how the Black experience and Black culture both then and now still permeates the script. Even in our costuming, you’ll see that there’s a lot of stuff you might see in the 1800s, but then stuff you see in 2021. You’ll see what we’re wearing is reminiscent of that time and our hairstyles or our shoes are modern. It’s that commentary of how there’s so much work to be done and conversations to be had. We’re exploring the nuances and echoes of slavery today. That’s what I love the most, which makes it a lot more potent. When it comes to conversations about slavery, some people will say it was a long time ago, but we all know there are still effects from that today.
Also, it’s not a long play at all. In doing it and rehearsing it, I remember from the first read-through feeling like I blinked and it was over. In doing it every night, you see what a wild ride it is and how relentless it is, which makes it that much more effective to drive the point home.
What is the biggest challenge about performing this show?
I play William, a child of about 10 or 11. For me as an adult, I think of how open and vulnerable I feel playing a child every night. Then [you] wrestle with the idea of what it’s like to be a child born into slavery and those questions, like at what point do you realize that you’re in the situation that you’re in. When do you realize your surroundings and circumstances and what does it do to the way you dream, your sense of hope? What does it do to your sense of play? Coming to grips with the reality of being a child in that time has been something that’s broken my heart to think about. All of it has been challenging, but the most rewarding and fun part of this process.
Tell us more about working with the director, Taylor Reynolds, and the cast.
I’m so grateful to have worked with Taylor on this as our director, [because of] how intentional she was about creating a safe environment for us to be this vulnerable and tell this heavy story. I go back to one of our first days of rehearsal. There was a mantra that she told us and we stuck with as time went on. As actors, it’s easy to get self-conscious or have that imposter syndrome come in. On the first day, she said this reminder of “It’s hard because it’s hard, not because you’re not good.”
That revelation freed me, and I think it freed all of us up. When you start a new process, you feel like it’s the first day of school. It can be challenging and daunting. We all haven’t done real live theater in over a year, so some of us may be coming in wondering if we’re rusty. That moment of our director, our leader, allowing us to breathe for a second with this reminder freed me up to play, explore, and go for it. Don’t be afraid of a marker or what the inner critic wants to impose on you.
The cast has been such a great family in this time. We hang out after rehearsal and have meaningful time onstage and off. It’s truly been an amazing experience because of our director, cast, and crew. Everyone is here for each other and it’s a beautiful thing.
Do you have a favorite scene in the play?
Lately, I’ve really been enjoying the trial. There are so many moments that I love. Since I’m playing the judge in the scene, there’s a lot I’m removed from, [which means] I can watch and see my castmates really go in to hit all those marks. It’s so great to watch. The cast is hilarious and watching them every night in the trial is a highlight in the show for me.
Your other HVSF show this season is The Tempest. What are you looking forward to the most with it?
We had our first day of rehearsal today. It’s another great room to be in, just like our Lamentable Trial rehearsal room. Tempest is all about magic and the magical realm. I’m looking forward to getting swept up by that, the feeling I felt back when I was in middle school. That’s always potent with me in every show I do, but I really want it to hit me hard again. I’m excited to see the themes we touch on this show: what those do to me, the cast, and the audiences.