Shakespeare Against the Canon in Our Verse in Time to Come
A unique blend of hip-hop, Shakespeare, comedy, audience interaction, Black cultural history, and nods to Washington, DC, Our Verse in Time to Come is a testament to the “other bards”— the ones still living and the ones still to come. Malik Work and Karen Ann Daniels penned a play that is inspired by Shakespeare, but which prioritizes a communal voice. Rather than try to adapt a canonical work, the playwrights forged an entirely new one.
Malik Work says of the project, “We didn’t just bring back Shakespeare. We brought back the issue of the prison system, how it affects Black people, and, most importantly, what all that has to do with memory.” The play itself begins with the release of an aging emcee known as SOS from a twenty-five-year prison sentence. Upon his diagnosis of dementia, SOS has one last chance to reconnect with his now grown twins, Vi and Will. What follows is an epic scavenger hunt infused with music, memory, and a touch of Shakespearean magic. On this journey, Vi and Will connect with their father’s friends and extended family and begin to understand who their father is and how his legacy will be remembered in time to come. Staged in the round, Our Verse in Time to Come received a full run at eleven different branches of the DC Public Library as well as at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in April of 2023.
As a local reviewer and Folger audience member, I had the opportunity to speak with co-authors Malik Work and Karen Ann Daniels (who is also the artistic director of Folger Theatre), as well as production dramaturg John “Ray” Proctor. Due to scheduling limitations, these interviews were conducted separately and have been edited by the interviewer as a conversation between the artists, drawing from the natural parallels found within each independent response.
Melissa Lin Sturges: Each of you has worked extensively with Shakespeare’s plays—as actors, directors, and educators—as well as with community-based theatre. (Here I use Jan Cohen-Cruz’s definition of community-based performance as “a field in which artists, collaborating with people whose lives directly inform the subject matter, express collective meaning”). With so much to pull from, where did you begin?
Malik Work: Karen Ann Daniels and I started working together at the Public Theater in New York. Incidentally, we started with some hip hop and Shakespeare workshops for incarcerated participants, which I designed under her leadership and guidance. Because it was during the pandemic, we worked mostly with video projects, which turned out to be very successful. Then she told me she was leaving the Public Theater to join The Folger Theatre (which publishes my favorite Shakespeare editions to teach). When she was situated, she asked me how I would feel about writing a play with her. The play was about memory—about whose stories are told and remembered. So we began to collaborate on Our Verse in Time to Come.
Melissa: Ray, you joined later in this process. Can you speak to how you approached this work as the dramaturg?
John “Ray” Proctor: I was grateful that Malik and Karen Ann invited me in at a time when my primary job as a dramaturg would be to listen. I listened, and I read the script and reflected what I saw back to the playwrights. I would sit with Malik and say, “This is what’s in your story.” I would do the same thing with Karen Ann. I would tell them what the other was saying and what I saw in the play itself. There were so many people telling them what was in their story; I was the interlocutor or the filter for everyone in the room. Malik also asked me what the relationship between prisoners and dementia was. I looked closely at prisons with predominantly Black populations, especially where there were riots. That was some of the initial research I did. But I do think my job was to listen and reflect back, mostly. At least, that was the first part.
When we made it to the actual workshop in March, they brought in Vernice Miller as the director. She was so smart and wonderful. We had Kaja Dunn as an intimacy coordinator. We had the stage manager, Kate Kilbane. We had Nick the 1da Hernandez as the DJ. All of these people were in the room.
We started to see how the circle transforms hierarchy into an equitable place to exist. For us, that became a grounding place for this play to begin.
Melissa: How much of the play emerged during the rehearsal process? Did anything surprise you along the way?
Karen Ann Daniels: How hard it is to stage a play! On some level, a play is only words on a page. It takes other peoples’ embodiment and experiences for a play to become a living, breathing entity.
Working in a partnership can be a challenge, especially when you’re not in the same place, but what I love about this project is the community we built. Things resonated. People felt the emotions we were putting on stage.
In this play we see a positive relationship—a loving relationship—between a Black man and his son. I think fraught relationships between Black characters are something the world expects. We praise Shakespeare for his characters and his stories, but Our Verse in Time to Come feels present and real. This play is about memory. Who has it? Who gets to choose how we remember? This man, SOS, didn’t just sit and rot in prison. He has things he learned and did. And this is valuable; it is part of a larger heritage.
Melissa: Ray mentioned being an interlocutor, a facilitator; and that reminds me of the role of the “cypher,” which is a gathering of people (sometimes around a DJ) for free-style rapping, emceeing, breaking, and beatboxing. The play, which is staged in the round, begins with the question, “what is a cypher?” Can you speak to that initial question asked of the audience and how the play builds from that?
Karen Ann: We start with the cypher as a kind of a circle. Like I saw with my work in correctional facilities, there are so many things in life that are based around the collective and not the individual. The circle is a form of healing. So that’s where it comes from for me.
Malik offered a complete parallel within hip-hop. Hip-hop is also a circle where everyone brings themselves into the space and engages.
Thinking about where we would perform this, we started to see the circles in the geography of Washington, DC. We started to see how the circle transforms hierarchy into an equitable place to exist. For us, that became a grounding place for this play to begin.
Ray: The cool thing about that rehearsal room was everyone was a cypher. It was a stew, and everyone added a flavor that ended up on stage.
What was even more wonderful about this process was there was no vying for dominance in the room. It was the most communal process imaginable. It was gentle and patient in all parts. Everyone understood the creative process. The thing that you saw on stage emerged organically from a community working together.
Malik: We came in with a play. The rehearsal room evolved it, helped us edit, helped us cut and really refine the work. Your question reminded me of Karen Ann’s background in community engagement and the importance of listening. It’s not just about being an artist. It’s about what will most serve the community. That approach really lifted our game. Great things happen when powerful minds—or, powerful creatives willing to listen to one another—come together, especially when they are willing to change and grow from the project. We were successful at that.
Melissa: I like that phrase: powerful creatives. That makes me think of the power dynamics at play in Shakespeare; we can’t ignore that history. Who has access to Shakespeare? What should we as practitioners and as advocates for theatre try to cultivate in an audience? I’m also keeping in mind that most of these shows were public access—completely free and open to the public.
Karen Ann: There have been studies on engaging with “new audiences” from an institutional perspective. However, audience engagement from a marketing perspective is short-term. Working with the community is long-term. This moves the strategy from transactional to relational. It’s going out, getting to know people, them getting to know us—and figuring out what we want to do together. That way, communities can grow together.
What I've been seeing for years is that when you go to the people rather than expect them to go to you, it changes things. It can be a radical departure.
When we started, the idea was to build community-oriented structures. We also thought about family and how systems that we abide by in our world are oftentimes really oppressive. Our Verse in Time to Come is about community. It’s about growing together, it’s about repairing relationships, and it's about healing. Theatre can meaningfully represent and impact someone’s time on this earth. They may then choose to use their time on this earth to see more theatre. We as creatives are with them and for them, and I think this play proves that. What I've been seeing for years is that when you go to the people rather than expect them to go to you, it changes things. It can be a radical departure.
Melissa: In this play there are various nods to Shakespeare plays—names, places, themes, even a direct quote to two. There are also explicit references to people and places in Washington, DC. To what extent do you expect audiences to recognize this source material?
Malik: I enjoy blurring the lines. There’s so much Shakespeare on our tongues and in our brains that we don’t even realize. But I love the way language changes the way we see the world. At the end of the day, language belongs to all of us. That’s true of Shakespeare, and that’s also true of things like hip-hop. Understanding the world through poetry is a beautiful thing. So I wanted to blur the lines of what is Shakespeare and what is not. We have some areas in this world of the play that are definitely Shakespeare and some that are inspired by Shakespeare. There are other storytellers—there are other bards—and some of them are still living.
Melissa: How does blurring the lines of language impact the play’s focus on memory?
Malik: Language and memory dance together very well. Shakespeare is a part of our cultural memory. Hip-hop is a part of our cultural memory. Cultural memory is important when we talk about incarcerated individuals because sometimes that’s all they have. They have a specific memory of when they were free and also a concern that the rest of the world has forgotten them. Memory becomes so much more important without corporeal freedom. Knowing incarcerated people and having heard their stories, I see that the way they remember and the way they are remembered is heightened in their lives. Shakespeare’s tragedies tend to speak to us more than the comedies. To dig into a tragic issue and make it intersect with regular life can resonate.
Melissa: How does Shakespearean verse go hand in hand with other forms of verse and music—specifically Black music—in Our Verse in Time to Come?
Memory becomes so much more important without corporeal freedom.
Ray: The very first thing that the cast says is, “We’ll get to Shakespeare later. Come in and sit down first.” We changed the rules of the theatre immediately. We changed the nature of the relationship between the audience and the spectacle text. I don’t know if you know how awesome Nick the 1da is, but he’s awesome. Before the event started, he built the soundtrack of another time. He references a shared cultural musical vocabulary, and it makes us smile and it reminds us of something else. It triggers memory. And it demystifies the passive role of the theatre audience.
Melissa: Finally, what are the benefits of not only challenging an existing canon of work, but contributing to a new canon altogether?
Ray: The play is specifically speaking to Black people. It’s saying, “Learn to be a storyteller. Learn to own this and shape this. This is oral history.”
“Our verse” is a nod to the tradition of oral history in Black culture. We’re talking about the survival of Blackness in America. That’s in the play! How do we survive the history of Blackness in America?