reopening night doc 1200x450

Saheem Ali & Jocelyn Bioh on the HBO Documentary Reopening Night

The Public’s annual Shakespeare in the Park returned to the Delacorte Theater this year, and HBO captured every moment of its comeback. Its feature documentary Reopening Night follows the cast, crew, and staff of The Public Theater as they prepare to mount a modern adaptation of The Merry Wives of Windsor in Central Park.

Reopening Night offers an honest look at the Black experience in theater, and acknowledges the challenges and speaks to the expansive power of art to touch people’s lives. With behind-the-scenes access to the creative process, from casting and rehearsals to the design team to the construction of the all-weather set in Central Park, the film takes audiences on a roller-coaster ride as opening night swiftly approaches. The documentary details the challenging 12-week journey to opening night, and Broadway Direct caught up with Merry Wives’s playwright, Jocelyn Bioh, and its director, Saheem Ali, to discuss the film and some memories of putting this show together.

Was the intention always to have the development process of Merry Wives filmed as a documentary?

Saheem Ali: Executive producers Matthew O’Neill and Perri Peltz had been in conversations with The Public Theater about doing a documentary at some point. The idea came about to really use Merry Wives as the backbone of the story of the reopening, and the reengaging of the theatre coming back. Then Matt and Perri brought director Rudy Valdez on board and it all went forward from there.

Jocelyn says in the film that she had some reservations about working on Merry Wives at first. Did you, Saheem?

SA: Shakespeare in the Park is one of the first shows that I saw in New York when I was a student in Boston. I had been dreaming of doing a show at the Delacorte for years. And with Richard II being canceled the year before, I wasn’t quite sure what the production would be this year, because there were a number of candidates on the docket. I knew that I wanted something that was a comedy. I knew that I wanted something that was fun. I also wanted to bring a unique perspective to it in any way that I could. And I’ve worked with playwrights before on Shakespeare. There’s a really beautiful, collaborative opportunity there with someone who’s contemporary wrestling with Shakespeare’s text and finding a way to make it their own. When I landed on Merry Wives and I started to circle around this concept of sending a contemporary and bringing a West African immigrant lens on it, Jocelyn was the first and only person who came to mind as someone I wanted to collaborate with. I knew that this would require a level of linguistic enhancement that I don’t have the capacity for because I’m not a writer. I had no hesitation from jump, just every step of the way, I was just looking for a way to find a more exciting and fun and lively way to bring back the theater, and Jocelyn was the most obvious and only collaborator I wanted for the project.

Jocelyn, now having seen the documentary, do you feel a sense of validation and accomplishment?

Jocelyn Bioh: I think I was really moved that the film really captures all aspects — what it’s like to put on a show and create a play. They started documenting pretty shortly after I had worked on the first draft, essentially, of the play, so you’re able to track from when I had deep questions about certain words and lines and figuring out what will be relevant, to getting all the way to opening night. I think I was so appreciative that people will be able to see that it’s not just, when you wake up one day, you write a play and then you call people and then they just start doing it right away. There’s so much work that’s involved. I think the film really shows and has a lot of respect for the process of putting on a show, for one, and secondly, putting on a show in the greatest, most insane circumstances. In our case, it was a pandemic.

MERRY WIVES<br /> By William Shakespeare<br /> Adapted by Jocelyn Bioh<br /> Directed by Saheem Ali<br /> Featuring Abena, Shola Adewusi, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Pascale Armand, MaYaa Boateng, Phillip James Brannon, Brandon E. Burton, Joshua Echebiri, Branden Lindsay, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Jarvis D. Matthews, Jacob Ming-Trent, Jennifer Mogbock, Julian Rozzell Jr., Kyle Scatliffe, David Ryan Smith, and Susan Kelechi Watson
Pascale Armand, Julian Rozzell Jr., David Ryan Smith, Susan Kelechi Watson, and Phillip James Brannon. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The documentary highlights some of that editing process you did with the script. Can you speak a little bit about modernizing certain lines and redoing some of the problematic language that Shakespeare used?

JB: There are certain things that the original Shakespearean text just wouldn’t land in the world that Saheem and I wanted to create for this particular production. Anything that felt like it didn’t work from the original text, I gave myself liberty to change for this new version. It was like, How deep do we lean in, and figure out what these characters would be eating, what they would be selling in present day. For instance, we were discussing about whether the meat from the original Shakespearean text would be consumed now in this Harlem neighborhood. And we were like, What would it be if it was African people who were buying this food? I think that particular moment highlights how authentic we were trying to make this particular production to the people we were portraying.

Saheem, this show offered you every challenge. There was the cancelation due to a COVID-19 case, a cast injury, heavy rain that delayed the first preview. Everything that could go wrong, did. The film shows that you stayed persistent, on task, and mentally ready to lead your cast and crew. How were you able to do that?

SA: I’m a resilient human. But I had already guarded myself for the inevitable, because I knew that entering into a situation where we had COVID always looming over our heads, you were just going to have to be ready for anything. There was such an unpredictable nature to what we were entering. It’s already ephemeral. It’s already tentative, because you go in and there’s so many things that could go right, there’s so many things that could go wrong. But knowing that we have this virus, knowing that we were in a mixed-vaccination-status company, knowing that anyone could get sick at any moment, you just have to enter it every day being like, “OK, today’s going to bring something. I have no idea what it’s going to be, but we’re going to be ready for it. We’re going to solve it and we’re going to face it.” I think that definitely gave me a sense of preparation that was different from other times. That trifecta of rain and illness and injury and all of them happening at the same time … I mean, Jacob Ming-Trent was out for two weeks with an injury, and then someone got COVID, and then three people had to leave the cast because of the risks that were involved. So we were tried, there was trial and tribulation, but we love what we do. Jocelyn and I are optimists, we are passionate, we have fun in the room. I think if you just, like, arm yourself with a positive spirit and optimism and have a “Let’s deal with it, let’s fix it” attitude, you can deal with anything.

Watching this film, there were so many elements that I didn’t know went into the creation and development process. Was there anything that came as a surprise to you?

JB: I was actually surprised that, prior to the COVID shutdown, I knew that they were setting up for what was supposed to be Saheem’s other show, Richard II, but I had no idea that the set was still there and that it had been there that whole time. And by the time they had said, “Let’s go with Merry Wives,” they had to break down whatever did exist of a completely different show and then build a whole new one. I always have had a lot of sympathy for everybody who works at the Delacorte. It’s such a thankless job in so many ways because people just truly don’t realize what goes into building sets in such extreme conditions like that, in the middle of the summer. But I had no idea that they were breaking down something old and then having to build something new. That was a surprise to me.

SA: I had forgotten about the extreme oscillation of weather that we experienced. It was like a hundred degrees during the day. And then it was freezing and raining at night. It was insane what the elements were throwing at us, and to feel so vulnerable and you have no ceiling, there’s no roof over your head. It’s a real humbling moment when there is absolutely nothing you can do against the elements. And we’re choosing to do this. We’re choosing to go into a situation where the weather could decide whether we go or we don’t, on top of everything else. So I think that I forgot that, and watching the film, I just like, “Oh, yeah, that’s right. We had that too.”

MERRY WIVES<br /> By William Shakespeare<br /> Adapted by Jocelyn Bioh<br /> Directed by Saheem Ali<br /> Featuring Abena, Shola Adewusi, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Pascale Armand, MaYaa Boateng, Phillip James Brannon, Brandon E. Burton, Joshua Echebiri, Branden Lindsay, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Jarvis D. Matthews, Jacob Ming-Trent, Jennifer Mogbock, Julian Rozzell Jr., Kyle Scatliffe, David Ryan Smith, and Susan Kelechi Watson
Phillip James Brannon, Kyle Scatliffe, and David Ryan Smith. Photo by Joan Marcus.

I find that there is so much meaning behind this film coming out during this time. There has been a resurgence of COVID-19 cases in NYC and multiple Broadway shows have had to cancel performances because of it. This film does a good job of highlighting the power of staying the course. Do you feel that there is any significance to this documentary coming out now? 

JB: When we first started working on Merry Wives, we were the people who were jumping into the unknown. The team at The Public worked with the most incredible doctors and epidemiologists figuring out what a COVID safety plan would be in terms of testing and all of the things. Everyone was looking to us and watching what was going to happen with Merry Wives as an indicator for what could potentially happen when most of the Broadway shows started opening back up. I think people now who are, whether they’re within the theater community or outside of it, can understand how extraordinary the circumstances are that we are working in to still put theater up and try to bring entertainment and joy into people’s hearts and lives through all of these circumstances. I feel like it’s great that we were able to get that on film and document it and have people have a clear understanding now. Maybe they’re only reading about it. Maybe they’re only casually seeing it on Twitter or social media, and they can literally walk into the belly of the beast with us and have more of an understanding. And if that means getting vaccinated, or encouraging friends or family to do that, so we can move through this and come out on the other side with some semblance of normal, then great.

Is there anything that you both learned during this process that you’re going to take with you forever?

SA: I wish there were more opportunities to capture a process of making theater as we were so lucky and fortunate to have, because theater on its own is its own experience. You have a story of a beginning, a middle, and you have some conflict, trauma, and then you have a lot of joy. I just think what Rudy Valdez managed to capture was so incredible because he was able to give it an arc that made it a story of its own. I would love to see more documentaries like these get made so that we can really appreciate them, as Jocelyn was saying, all of the hard work and energy, and positive can-do spirit that goes into making theater possible.

JB: I echo that! I was so emotional watching the documentary. I loved what we created, and even watching the documentary, I feel like I learned a lot more about myself and the way in which I handle crazy and extreme, harrowing circumstances. Even though I’ve always known that I love what I do, I love theater, I love creating work, I feel like this is a beautiful love letter to those of us who do this crazy thing and don’t do it because we feel like there’s going to be some great big financial reward at the end. It’s that we really love it. We love it. Even as crazy as it is, we can’t wait to get up and do it again. And I’m thrilled that somebody was able to capture that. I think Rudy just did an incredible job. I’m really looking forward to people seeing it.

Reopening Night debuted Monday, December 20 on HBO, and will be available to stream on HBO Max.