Eric Pierre, a pastor who teaches fifth-grade English in the Bronx, has taken up an additional title this summer: royal duke. At least that’s the role he’s playing onstage in the Public Works production of “As You Like It.”
He’s one of dozens of community members, ages 7 to 87 and from all five boroughs, performing alongside several professional actors in the 90-minute musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy. The show, now in previews, is set to open on Tuesday at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.
Pierre plays the cruel Duke Frederick, who banishes his brother, among others, to the Forest of Arden in this tale of camouflage, love and self discovery.
The role was not a natural fit for Pierre, who described the difficulty of channeling his nefarious character and trying to identify the pain associated with his quest for power. “We all have a Duke Fred inside of us,” said Pierre, 49, who, through his Public Works performances, has been able to join Equity, the professional actors’ union.
This production, a remounting of an acclaimed one that ran in 2017, is part of the Public Theater’s Public Works program, which has produced streamlined and musicalized versions of works — like “The Tempest” in 2013 and “Hercules” in 2019 — that feature amateur performers from eight partner groups, including the Fortune Society and Children’s Aid Society. These productions usually have a short run in September after the regular season of Shakespeare in the Park. But this one was scheduled to have a longer run during the summer of 2020, before being delayed by the pandemic. Now, it is finally onstage, through Sept. 11, as Public Works celebrates its 10th anniversary.
Laurie Woolery, the director of the show and Public Works, called the diverse experiences and authenticity of the community cast members their secret sauce.
“Theater is a reflection of humanity,” Woolery said, “and if we only reflect a portion of humanity, we aren’t doing our job as cultural workers and citizen artists. We need to be speaking to the world that we’re living in — and that includes everybody.”
As the musical begins, families of twos and threes — made up of the community performers — walk on a stage filled with cherry blossom trees and a bridge illuminated by a violet-purple light.Shaina Taub, the show’s composer and lyricist, also appears onstage as an inquisitive yet cynical character who provides a bird’s-eye view and additional context for audience members. As she sings “All the World’s a Stage,” her character contemplates the journeys of the young lovers Orlando and Rosalind (played by Ato Blankson-Wood and Rebecca Naomi Jones, well-known professional actors returning to the roles they played in the 2017 production) to their authentic selves as they shed their disguises.
“A process of healing and growth is letting go of all those expectations of the role you’re supposed to play,” Taub said.
The musical drives home themes of love and optimism, a message especially important amid social division, disease and unrest, Taub said.
“Still, we’re going to get together and sing and dance on the stage of the Delacorte,” she added. “Still, we’re going to show up every day and tell the story and be kind to each other. It really feels like this beautiful act of resistance.”
One of the other community performers, Lori Brown-Niang, who has also obtained an Equity card, has built a second family with Public Works over the last decade. She said she remembered feeling relieved when women from Domestic Workers United, a partner organization that uplifts and mobilizes domestic workers of color, watched over her young son, JonPaul Niang, as she rehearsed her speaking roles. In other instances, her son, whom she described as a “good mover,” worked with older cast members on the dance moves and continued rehearsals in their Bronx backyard.
“Are we doing this?” Brown-Niang recalled having asked her son. “Yes, Mommy, we have to get used to singing and dancing outside.”
In “As You Like It,” Brown-Niang and her son, now an 18-year-old Hostos Community College sophomore, are working together as puppeteers steering the head and front leg of a lion who challenges Orlando in the Forest of Arden.
“It’s been a blessing to be able to raise my son, as a single mother, in this community,” she said.
Nestor Eversley joined Public Works this year as a member of the Fortune Society, a partner organization that helps the formerly incarcerated re-enter society. Eversley, who was incarcerated for 17 years, became interested in the Public Works program after watching its 2019 production of “Hercules” and said he wondered what it would feel like to step onstage. (He admits underestimating the time commitment for rehearsals.)
“In the streets, you have to be defensive, watch your back, all that kind of stuff,” Eversley said. “Here, it’s a different world.”
In a pristine white suit, Eversley emerges as an older version of Orlando, marrying an older version of Rosalind. The two walk unified, showing off their defiant, timeless love, below a decorative arch.
In the final number, the stage is bathed in a rainbow of colors, with cast members swaying while singing “Still I Will Love.” It’s a lively celebration and testament to the power of community strength and devotion.
“Hopefully people leave the theater with their hearts a little more open,” Woolery said.