Audiences attending the New York Classical Theatre’s current production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale in Manhattan’s Battery Park are experiencing a rare treat- the words of the Bard being spoken in lilting Jamaican “patois”- or dialect- by award winning actor David Heron, who appears as King Polixenes of Bohemia in the show.
The Jamaican born Heron, who emigrated to New York over a decade ago to pursue his acting and playwriting careers, is now a Shakespeare veteran who has appeared Off Broadway and across the country in some of the playwright’s most famous works. His resume includes Antony and Cleopatra, Hamlet, The Tempest, Othello, Henry V and Coriolanus in which he played the title role at the Harlem Shakespeare Festival several years ago.
However, it is the first time in his entire career that he was called on to use his native accent in a major Shakespearean role- a bold and refreshing decision made by The Winter’s Tale Director, Stephen Burdman.
According to Heron, “ In one of the play’s latter sequences, my character King Polixenes comes to suspect that his young son and heir to the throne, Prince Florizel (Xavier Pacheco) is romantically involved with the daughter of a humble country shepherd. Obviously, that’s not good news for him, so Polixenes resolves to disguise himself as a peasant and attend the rural shepherd festival with his closest courtier Camillo (John Michalski) to spy on his son and determine the nature of the rumored relationship.”
During the rehearsal process, Heron was experimenting with different accents to aid in his disguise scenes, when Burdman, who also serves as Artistic Director of the theatre, suggested they try Heron’s Jamaican dialect.
The actor was initially skeptical of what the marriage between Shakespeare’s words and his native accent would sound like.
“I was in shock at first. My first thought was that if I went back to the very broadest version of my Jamaican patois, nobody would understand me. Like many actors from the Caribbean and other foreign countries, when I first arrived in New York I was told that my accent needed to be toned down or eliminated altogether to give myself a chance at a meaningful career. And while that’s changing a lot more now with the proliferation of new media and the demographic evolution of America as a whole, it still helps to be able to master an American accent as best you can.”
Heron worked closely with the production’s vocal coach Barbara Adrian and started with a very light reading of his lines with the accent but was then encouraged by both Burdman and Adrian to take it further.
“I felt as though a part of my career as an artist was coming full circle because I had spent so much time trying to lose the accent and speak American English – especially in Shakespearean roles- and now I was being encouraged to go back to my roots! So now it’s a really broad, really deep Jamaican sound, but Shakespeare’s words are so timeless that even with the very different pronunciation of them, no communication at all is lost. And for our audiences, it’s been a breath of fresh air.”
The Winter’s Tale, which marks the 17th season of the New York Classical Theatre, also features Mark August, Miles Duffield, Brad Frazier, Ian Gould, Emiley Kiser, Mairin Lee, Peyton Lusk, Harriet Taylor, Fred Rose and Lisa Tharps.
The show is expected to play to over 5000 people during its run, and continues at The Battery, Battery Park until Sunday August 7 before relocating to Brooklyn Bridge Park for its final week, August 9 – 14.