The role of Prospero in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest has been played by a woman before — take the 2010 movie adaptation with Helen Mirren or a 2017 production at St. Ann Warehouse in New York City, for example.
But Tamara Tunie — the accomplished actor, Homestead native and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) alumnae who currently plays Prospero in artistic director Marya Sea Kaminski’s adaptation of the Bard’s work at Pittsburgh Public Theater (PPT) — hopes her rendition of the classic character can inspire young actors of color, who feel the same desire for representation that Tunie had when she was young.
“They can see through me, and through this opportunity that I’m having, that there’s an opportunity for them as well,” Tunie told the Current.
It’s this championing of representation that drives Kaminski’s adaptation of The Tempest, which begins previews Jan. 24 and runs through Feb. 24. A diverse female cast of different ages and races, come together to retell the Bard’s tale of betrayal and forgiveness.
The play begins in an oncology ward, where Prospero (Tunie), a former oncologist, is fighting late-stage breast cancer. Soon, the audience is transported to a wintery fever dream from Prospero’s imagination, where she is a powerful sorceress coming to terms with her illness and its effect on those around her.
The adaptation runs about 90 minutes without an intermission — the play is usually three hours long — with 95 percent of Shakespeare’s original dialogue in iambic pentameter.
Although The Tempest was believed to be Shakespeare’s last play, the production marks a first for Kaminski; this is the first production she’s directing at PPT since assuming the title of artistic director in fall of 2018.
Typically, The Tempest takes place on a tropical island. But, a past trip to Iceland inspired Kaminski to change the play’s climate.
“The Tempest is set in this place where the weather can kill you, right? The weather is very dangerous, it is assertive, it is really a character in the play,” Kaminski says. “And also in Iceland, they believe in magic. They actually believe that the island is inhabited by spirits of little people. And while I was there I was like, ‘Oh, this is lifted off the page of The Tempest.’”
Kaminski conceptualized the play during last year’s #MeToo movement after wanting to stage a version of the play with a female Prospero. Although the play is not directly tied to #MeToo — it focuses more on Prospero’s spiritual journey caused by her breast cancer — the moment in time made Kaminski think about gender, leading her to select an all-female cast.
“I’m actually hoping it removes gender,” Kaminsky says. “By having it all women, I actually think we can surface something that’s a little more universal about it and a little more primal.”
By also setting it in an oncology ward, Kaminski hopes to ground the play’s core ideas — like betrayal and forgiveness — in real-life moments audience members can relate to.
“Rather than talking about big concepts, we’re talking about real experience,” she says.
With the concept down, Kaminski set out to cast her production. Kaminski, who followed Tunie’s work in the past, reached out to see if the award-winning actress would like to be involved.
“Inviting those folks [CMU alumni] back to the city and back to our stage really aligns with some of the bigger ideas that I’m hoping to achieve here at the Pittsburgh Public [Theater],” Kaminski says.
Tunie, when approached, thought that the idea of an African-American, female Prospero was “brilliant,” and said yes.
“It’s an opportunity that, after speaking with Marya on the telephone, I seized upon,” Tunie said.
Tunie’s own personal connection to cancer also inspired her to join the cast. A friend with cancer experienced similar feelings about her condition akin to what Prospero experiences in The Tempest, which moved Tunie.
“It wasn’t breast cancer but I remember having a conversation with her and about how frustrated and angry she was at her own body and how betrayed she felt by her own body,” Tunie said. “So, that really kind of resonated in a profound way for me and I desperately wanted to be a part of this.”
Shammen McCune, who plays Caliban, believes the production is a chance to portray a “bucket-list character.”
“To have a crack at it, given that it’s an all-female cast is a ridiculously marvelous gift,” McCune says.
McCune says that Caliban, who is typically depicted as a Creature From the Black Lagoon-esque character, is given a more philosophical treatment to explore what it means to be a monster and who becomes one in the play.
“I thought, ‘Well wouldn’t it be interesting if we didn’t do that, but how do we make the monster? What is it about a monster?’” she says.
McCune said that the show’s connection to breast cancer will help audience members empathize with those who have any form of the disease, which affects about 40% of men and women at some point in their lives, according to the National Cancer Institute.
“We all know someone who has been affected by cancer […] or directly related to somebody who is dealing with cancer,” McCune said.
Tunie, an accomplished film and television actor probably best known for playing Dr. Melinda Warren on Law and Order: SVU, last appeared in Pittsburgh at City Theatre with her holiday cabaret, Legends of the Burgh in 2016. However, The Tempest marks her longest stay in the area since graduating from CMU in 1981. After The Tempest ends its run in February, Tunie and Tempest castmate Laurie Klatscher head to City Theatre to begin rehearsals for The Roommate, which runs from March 2-24. Tunie will also join the City Theatre Board of Directors in 2019.
Tunie, however, believes this production is more than an opportunity to come home. It’s a chance to break barriers and tell a story worth retelling.
“It was a thrilling opportunity for me to come home and be part of something that I think is going to be really unique and really special,” Tunie said. “And I think it’s really going to resonate with the audience in a magical and stirring way.”