Making the leap from actor to director

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Sonja Parks gives notes to actor Ansa Akyea during a rehearsal of “Othello.”

Sonja Parks has a solid reputation as an accomplished actor in the Twin Cities. In just the past year she performed the one-woman show “No Child” at Pillsbury House Theater (for which she won an Ivey Award) and starred in “I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady From Rwanda” at Park Square Theatre.

But Parks has decided that simply acting is not enough for her; she wants to direct. I caught up with Parks at a rehearsal for “Othello” which she’s co-directing with Ten Thousand Things’ Artistic Director Michelle Hensley. Parks doesn’t mince words when she talks about the trade-offs between acting and directing:

To be perfectly honest with you, what directing provides me that acting does not is a say-so.

I’ve always been the kind of performer who wanted – okay, demanded! – a say in what my character did onstage. I’ll never overstep my bounds as an actor in the rehearsal room, but if what you want is a just a body who will show up and move around the stage saying the text the way you want them to say it, I’m not your girl. I know there are those who will argue that that’s what acting is and, I’m sorry, no offense, but they’re wrong.

Parks says she’s committed to a collaborative style of directing in which actors have a voice not just on stage, but in rehearsal. Parks obviously isn’t afraid of a challenge, taking on a Shakespeare classic as one of her first projects. She says she loves “Othello,” in part because it “pushes my buttons.”

The play deals with, among other things, racism. A few times in rehearsal, I had to step back and say: “Okay, I’m not liking this character ’cause they are saying some really racist stuff. But that’s what the moment is about, so don’t whimp out.”

As a black person, it’s hard for me to say to a white actor: “You have to make that line sound like the N-word”, and I know it’s hard for the actor too, but that’s what’s going on in the scene–that’s what it is.

The treatment of women in this play too, is hard for me as a woman. I don’t want to see women brutalized, but that’s what’s on the page. And I joke and kid around about being a violent person, but some of the violence in the play is disturbing. But I’m the director, and if I milk-toast the violence, I’m cheating my audience.

I love the play because it addresses all those ugly things in human nature. I wanted to do the play to bring those things to the forefront. My personal challenge is that I have to go to those places in myself to find the truth of the scenes and that’s very difficult.

Even from just attending an hour of rehearsal, it’s evident that this is a different “Othello” from stagings I’m familiar with. The Desdemona of this production fights back. The jealousy is not artful – it’s real and painful. Michelle Hensley credits Parks with bringing that element to the show.

Othello co-directors Michelle Hensley and Sonja Parks

She brings a great commitment to making all the “ugliness” of the play palpable — not shying away from the “animal” behavior that jealousy brings out in all of us — the rage and the violence, particularly the sexual violence. Bringing her perspective as an African American woman as well, she shared my commitment to looking at this play not just as one black man in a white man’s world — but in a world more comparable to ours today, where women and blacks hold positions of power — but racism and sexism still exist, though in more subtle and complex forms.

Parks adds, “This production is not a glorification of any one society or culture. It touches, rather, on the baggage we all carry around, no matter what our culture. The white characters aren’t the kindest and the purest and neither are the blacks. I’m interested in what motivates our actions as human beings and then what labels we put on that.”

Parks says directing for her is about growing as a person, and taking on new challenges. And with this production she’ll certainly find out what audiences think of her work.

Ten Thousand Things Theater Company performs primarily for people who wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to see theater, bringing plays to homeless shelters, prisons and other places that serve the disenfranchised. That often means that if they don’t like the show, attendees will get up and walk out, or start talking to the person sitting next to them.

Othello runs October 14 through November 15 at various locations, including public performances at Open Book and the Minnesota Opera Center.

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