In the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration created the Federal Theater Project, a wide-ranging program that funded live theater across the country. A major component included the establishment of companies of African American artists in nearly two dozen cities, and program director Hallie Flanagan pushed for racial equality as a pillar of the effort.
If federally funded Black art sounds like a radical idea for the United States of the 1930s, Congress agreed. Decried by the House Un-American Activities Committee, the Federal Theater Project had its funding pulled four years after its inception.
That sliver of history made an outsized impact on Lamar Legend as a teenager at his New York performing arts high school.
“In our history of dramatic literature class, when I heard that there was a time in American history where the government funded the arts, that was the first time in the class where I perked up and listened,” Legend said. “Reading about Tennessee Williams, I was like, ‘snore.’ Reading about Ibsen, I was like, ‘snore.’
“But the cultivation of art and the support of it, full stop, by the government for a short period in history — and then virtually never again — that was something that really, really resonated.”
That period acts as a framing device for Seattle Shakespeare Company’s “Drum and Colours,” a program pairing “Hamlet” and “As You Like It,” performed in repertory by a cast made up entirely of people of color. “Hamlet” opens Feb. 18, with previews starting Feb. 16, and “As You Like It” begins Feb. 26, with previews starting Feb. 24.
Legend wrote both adaptations and directs “As You Like It,” and the plays are linked by the conceit of a troupe of theater artists of color performing both plays during the Great Depression. “Hamlet” is directed by Juan A Mas, and Legend said the idea occurred to them almost simultaneously.
“We could have just done it set here in present day, but we were like, ‘There’s an opportunity to tell a greater story here,’ ” Legend said. “There are just too many parallels with that period of history and the one we’re currently in.”
“Drum and Colours” represents a milestone in Legend’s efforts as Seattle Shakes’ diversity programming coordinator, a job he’s had for almost three years. His goal is for the organization to feature a repertory company of people of color in every season.
“If there were no representation and no diversity within Shakespeare casts on Seattle stages, then we’ve all failed,” Legend said. “I believe in my heart of hearts we’re heading in the right direction.”
Nike Imoru plays Hamlet, and working with a cast of only people of color for the first time led to some unexpected nuances, she said.
“There is a layer of connection and communication — sometimes unspoken — that is very powerful for me,” Imoru said. “It’s very safe for me. I didn’t see that coming. As an actor, I like risk. But I don’t have to negotiate certain boundaries [or] safety in quite the same way. We discuss it; we create a culture of consent. But there are certain things I don’t feel invisibly burdened by.”
Imoru is returning to a role she last played at her all-girls high school in London, and she has a lot more psychological and emotional weight to bring to the character now, she said. Psychological and emotional distress is, of course, a hallmark of “Hamlet,” though Legend’s adaptation may look a bit different than some versions. In abridging the play, as most productions must, he’s cut out all the court politics to focus more tightly on the family drama, he said.
Shakespeare — and especially his war horses like “Hamlet” and “As You Like It” — is ineffably sturdy. No matter the time or place, his plays tend to be applicable to the era they’re in, Imoru said.
This pandemic era, with Seattle Shakes returning to live indoor performance for the first time, is no exception.
“Something that’s 400 years old [may be] a stabilizing force [when] so much is unstable,” she said. “Here is something that’s survived plagues, wars, famine. There is perhaps something comforting about that.”