Black Shakespeare(ans) Database

Anita Holland

Artist Profile by Seraphina Halpern


Anita Holland is a multidisciplinary artist, author, and facilitator of the healing arts. Anita’s work interrogates language, excavates ancestry, and strolls with the jungian shadow. They are building a creative family in Philadelphia. Anita has appeared on stage at InterAct, Flashpoint, Quintessence, Orbiter 3, Simpatico, PolyGlamourous, Philadelphia Artists Collective, Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists, CCTC, PAC, Theatre Exile, StageWest, People’s Productions, etc. They’ve created original roles in collaboration with Headlong Dance Theater (incubated artist), Swim Pony, The Painted Bride, Perfect Day, and Applied Mechanics (Company Member).

Contact Information


Phone: (801) 706-3176

Full Interview Transcript


HalpernOk, great. Welcome. I’m Seraphina Halpern. I’ll be interviewing you today, and I’m so glad to have you. To start off, I’d love to have you introduce yourself–your name, your pronouns, where you’re currently based out of, how you would identify the work you do, and anything else you’d like to share about your background?

HollandGreat. My name is Anita Marie Holland, my pronouns are they/them in plurality, also all, which means any pronoun, and we. I’m based out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, land of the Lenapehoking. Before that, Earth, I belong to the earth. Don’t we all? I’m an interdisciplinary artist and performer. I’m a diviser, author, facilitator of the healing arts. The work I do is rooted in curiosity, celebration of breath, as a birthright, playfulness, and luminosity. 

I don’t know–identity, identify–how do I identify? Identity, it’s kind of a curious conversation that’s, like, steeped in colonial structures, and I’m still defining having to define myself by a box within a box. But if we cannot see all these categories, these boxes, then how are we to break free from them? So with that said, I’m Black, American, mixed white, Asian, with an unaffiliated of Native American lineage. I say Black and American next to one another, because, well, once we get to Africa, the conversation about what I am gets really interesting. I was raised culturally white in the Midwest, I was born in 1982, before the widespread advent of the Internet. And I think, like, what I’m pointing at here is just my varying levels of privilege and positionality, which I think is important. Again, in order to get free, we have to see where we are and who we are. Also, in terms of identity, I don’t know–we’re queer, gender full, and I hold all of my ancestry with me, and again, Of The Earth.

HalpernThat’s a lovely answer. Thank you so much. I would also love to hear about some of the work you’ve been doing recently, whether you want to identify that as pre-shutdown or during the shutdown, or any work that you’re looking forward to completing in the new future.

HollandOkay, I spent a lot of the shutdown, I did online ballroom dancing with students, and that was really fun. We actually got to talk a little bit about settler colonialism with them, and how that affects dance, and how that seeps into so many things. But upcoming next month, I am doing a piece called The Black Best Friend where we’re unpacking, like, what it means to have been that in life for folks, as people who are femme presenting and identifying specifically, but also like, friends who are like so and so’s, when, like you have lots of with, you have a white friend who’s like, “You’re my best friend.” There’s just a lot entangled in that. That’s one piece. 

Then the Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists are putting on a festival called Come To Papa in June as well. And for that I’m leading a workshop called Deprogramming Alienation. So again, for me, a lot of my journey, these past–I mean, even before–I would say probably the past, like, two-and-a-half, three, years has just been really deeply self-reflective. There’s been a major journey in, which was only really lifted up by the pandemic of being like, well, all the structures that I usually have to like, give my time, and space, and energy to were no longer able to work. So I actually had to do the inner work that I was putting off and making excuses for. And some of that comes down to alienation; how was I an alien to myself? And this workshop specifically is just getting at programming, in terms of, like, literally the things that we see, like what we see on TV, what we see on social media, what we literally see in the world–there are images and things that are telling us–we’re being fed information all the time, from like several different directions. And so it’s just like a light, self reflection. And it’s a space that’s open to people of any race or ethnicity. It’s more specifically, I think, trained towards people, again, raised in America, because programming is different wherever you go. And also, the invitation is for people to notice all the things that come up for themselves, but only to share what is surprising for them. Yeah, and even noticing when judgment comes up, and just letting that–letting it be there, but not judging it. So I have, like, a little zine that I’m doing that goes along with that. 

Other than that, I’ve been working on looking at meditations, guided meditations, because there aren’t enough of those on the internet by people of color. And I really got, like, deeply pleased by ASMR over the course of the past few months. I really love how sound can reflect on the body in certain ways, and I know not everybody is sensitive to it, but I really wanted to kind of, like, mess with that as well. And also, I’ve kind of been just doing some work where I made myself a West African medicine wheel, and just kind of getting at the ways in which that also was parallel to native indigenous wisdom, here in the Americas. And just getting more–getting, again, closer to being of the Earth is the thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot. And sometimes there’s a lot of shame, and it’s like, hard to get outside of just being inside of a human body. So I’m also experimenting by being in like other natural bodies. So the first meditation I made is for the West, it’s for water, and it’s a whale meditation, and it’s really cute. So that’s–that’s one of the things I’m working on. 

I have a punk band called The Bandits. That’s a project of my theatre company Applied Mechanics. We’ve got, oh, we’ve got rehearsal next week. Maybe we’ll get some new songs. It’s gonna be really cute. We have a band on Bandcamp called We Are Bandits. (Laughs) 

And my theatre company–my theatre company, Applied Mechanics–has a nine episode serial that we are launching the first episode of in June. Funny, we’re a theatre company, but we’re going to–we’re going to mix it up: we’re going to do a variety of mediums, culminating with the ninth episode being an in-person spectacle. Who knows, I can’t tell you, I can’t tell you more about it. But essentially, it’s interdisciplinary–no, interplanetary–encounters of the queer kind, essentially. So like, we’re going to find a group of non-human beings on a planet far, far away, that is not so completely different from our own planet. Maybe 10,000, maybe 100,000 years from now. It’s gonna be fun. Our radio episode comes out May 30th. It’s cute! “Other Orbits.” 

Then aside from that, I don’t know, dramaturgy for friends. And then there’s like, there’s a visual art piece–it’s untitled–that surrounds lineage. And also, it’s like celebrating, celebrating ancestry, celebrating the present and celebrating the future unknown, that I am having a garment made for. And there will be–yeah, we’re gonna film. We’re gonna film some stuff here in spots around Philadelphia that, at least to me, feel very important and luminous. To shine a light on. Who knows how that work will exist. Maybe it will be in tandem with other things. Maybe it will be its own work by itself. We’ll see. So like not much.

Halpern(Laughs) Yeah, nothing at all, from what I’m hearing. 

Holland(Laughs) Yeah.

HalpernWow, that’s amazing. That’s such exciting work. I have a million more questions about it, and where I can find it, but I’m gonna get back to that at the end. I have some questions about how your new work can compare with the work you’ve done with Shakespeare. But I think we’re getting to that.

HollandOh, yeah, like the one more thing I forgot to say is that I just got trained. I did Reiki Two and Reiki Three, so in terms of the healing process and aspect that’s also been a large part of the journey in the last year and a half. And I think that like helps tie in with things later. So, just wanted to put that there. Okay.

HalpernYes! Yeah, no, I appreciate that. So, to start getting to those later things–just to give us, like, an idea of the direction you’re coming at Shakespeare from, could you talk about your background, like how you got introduced to it, your sort of evolution within Shakespeare over the years?

HollandYes. I met Shakespeare in high school. We did a production of Romeo and Juliet. I may have come across some other stuff earlier. I feel like we came across the Playboy, or was it the Hustler version of the Scottish play? Also, the Baz Luhrmann R+J came out when I was in High School, so that was really affecting. And again, that gets back to how much power these screens have. 

Let’s see. And then other than that, I don’t know. I wasn’t super into it until like, undergrad at the University of Utah. We, we had guest artists come from Shakespeare and Company in the Berkshires to teach, and I think, I think their pedagogy and their approach to the text, which really comes back to, like, breath connection or dropping-in was super important for me. Yeah. I mean, essentially, like, this is a process of dropping into–like, you sit across the space from your scene partner, and you’re taking them in. And it’s like, it’s a memorization technique, but also, like, super layered. So you don’t know all of your lines. You have someone behind you, who will tap you on the shoulder and read your–read each line to you. So you’ll say it without having to think about what the next words are. So it’s just being able to feel it and have it come from a space that’s deeply rooted in your breath, and to the person across the space. That was like, really, luminous is my word for the day. And I really like that a lot. 

And then also, over time, it’s the wordplay that really gets me. I love a good pun. And also, sitting around the table and talking about the layers of meaning that exist inherently in the text is super interesting. But then also noting that as time continues to pass, and these productions are done over and over again, but also the world continues to change. Also, those are new layers that are added to it. So yeah, yeah. Those are my thoughts.

HalpernYeah, that was amazing. I, I would love to hear how you think like, sort of your, your background in Shakespeare and this idea of Shakespeare as something that is very old that we are experiencing today, and that is still evolving today, versus this new work you’re creating, which is so, to me, it seems very rooted in the present moment. Sort of how do those two compare? Are there things that you can do with one that you can’t with the other? Or do you see less of a division between the two?

HollandI think I see less of a division between the two. Only because, specifically with Applied Mechanics, our work definitely, like, we definitely look at history when we’re making a thing and also ask a lot of questions. And like, Shakespeare is filled with all that history. But I think to me, theater and art in general, when uncoupled from the settler, colonialist and institutional structures and the entertainment industrial complex, I feel are exercises in expression that I personally believe are acts or a vehicles–or act as a vehicle of healing or desire or literal inspiration. Theater can ask questions and leave space for people to ponder the answers.

Yeah, but I feel like Applied Mechanics–yeah, we do–no, I think, I think I said that already. Trying not to repeat myself.

HalpernNo, that was a great answer. Thank you so much. I think next, like continuing with this idea of “How do we interact with Shakespeare today?” I would love to ask how, like, how you see your, your experience as a person–to try to avoid any any, like leaning into this idea that you’re, you have a specific identity that needs to interact with in a specific way. But sort of how that interacts with Shakespeare. Specifically, one thing you might sort of want to compare to or consider would be Keith Hamilton Cobb’s piece American Moor, where he talks about his experience as a Black man, and the struggle he faced in Shakespeare, where he was very interested in Shakespeare, loved it, and everyone just wanted him to be Othello and also didn’t want to ever hear his opinion on Othello. Is that something that resonates for you?

HollandYes, my experience is different, but yes. My experience is more of, like, “always the bridesmaid never the bride.” So I’ve done a variety of characters, but I’m still relegated to a certain space so it’s like I’ve been Ross, I’ve been chorus, I’ve been Queen Margaret, I’ve been a soldier, Casco, Regan, Ladies Montague, Capulet, and Lord Capulet. And then almost, almost Oberon and Hippolyta, and that’s a whole other thing. But essentially, and then I think, at some point, during the past year-and-a-half, I was asked to do a reading of Cymbeline but again, it was a character–I can’t remember her name–that, essentially, again is like a naysayer, like, is supposed to be powerful, but is still stuck within the structures of patriarchy. And I was like, “You know what, that’s just not a role that I want to play right now. I don’t want to get in that headspace. No, thank you. I know that headspace.” So it’s just like, it’s usually like the lesser-than-a-lead, the naysayer, the mother, the crone, or a vessel of pain, or an arrogant man? And I’m like, “Well, there are other roles.” (Laughs)

HalpernDo you feel like within that limited range of roles you’ve been given, you’ve been able to, like work with them and explore them? Like, what does it mean to you to play these, like, you know, “Negative Nancies” in Shakespeare’s canon?

HollandI mean, I think it took me a while to be like–hmm, I think I always had fun, like, again, playing with the words in the text. In general, when I’m in shows, when I’m not the lead, which is the space I’m very used to, I’ve gotten to a certain point where I’m like, “What is it that’s needed in the scene? There’s what the director wants. There’s what the lead needs.” And so I’ve gotten to a point of like, well, what’s the game of giving these people what they need. “Give the people what they need!” And so, that was a fun game for a very long time. Kind of, like, exciting. And then like, you know, just making different choices, but I think that cycles back to my own experience of eventually needing to direct my own life upside of the theater.

HalpernYeah, that makes a lot of sense. And definitely, like, reminds me of some of Cobb’s work in American Moor where he talks about, like Shakespeare as this place that was a great opportunity to connect with people, but also really asked him to like, listen to what the straight white male director wanted from the piece, and just try to appease him if he wanted the role.

HollandOh, absolutely. Absolutely. I think that–(laughs)–I think I have that reserved. More of my own opinion on that comes up on a later question. (Laughs.) But, I mean, you’re right, it is about appeasing that person. And it’s the thing that I didn’t feel–like, for many years, for a while, I was like, “Yeah, this is–this is fine, this is fun.” It’s harder to see in a silo of like, one play, and then another play, to like, feel like looking at the breadth of work, like, “Oh, that’s where I’m relegated to.” But when you’re doing reps, I think that’s where it becomes much more glaringly obvious, the issues. Because a lot of times, you know, like colorblindness is not a word that needs to exist in the lexicon anymore. It needs to be color conscious, or else, what are we doing here? But yeah, you know, most of the places that I’ve done, most of the directors have been white, most of the artistic directors are also white, most of the rooms, the other actors in the room are white, most of the audiences are also white. So it’s just like, for me, for my experience, specifically, again, being raised culturally white in the Midwest, I grew up understanding that as the norm. So it took a while for me to understand the weight that I needed to take off of my own personal shoulders. And I had an experience with a company in about, around Juneteenth of last year, that really, like, kind of just illuminated many things for me. It was a–it was a learning experience. And I was like, “Oh, yeah, I don’t have to do that. I don’t.” Yeah. (Laughs.)

HalpernYeah, absolutely. You don’t. I’m glad you were able to have that experience, and really see that. I guess, to keep moving on to these later questions, because I’m very excited to hear your opinion. So I know we already touched a little bit on this idea of how you’re, your own experience, like how it diverges from Keith Hamilton Cobb. I just want to give you a minute if you’d like to speak any more to that specifically, like him being a cis black man, versus your own experience?

HollandSo, for a while I- I- Yeah, for the longest time I’ve identified as like, mixed black femme. And I’m trying to, like, open up outside of those boxes. Well, no, I am, I am not trying. There’s just more, there’s just more to it. I have been fortunate that, like, because I have done drag for many years. And so like, I found myself in a lot of queer circles. So in terms of, like, gender expression, I’ve been able to flex in many different directions. So like, that’s been cute. I mean, I think my–but I think that there are still those purists out there that think that women can’t play both roles in Shakespeare, and I’m, like, over it. Yeah. Yeah.

HalpernI think “over it” is a great way to respond to that. And that is a great segue into our next question, which sort of compares how some people specifically, like, one thing we looked at in this course, was like Debra Ann Byrd’s Becoming Othello, where they talk about the opportunity to play men in Shakespeare’s canon as very liberating, specifically Othello, to get to, like, expand into that space and really explore themselves and their own identity. And comparing that with Ayana Thompson’s view of Othello, which is that, because of its embedded racism within the text, as well as the system of bigotry that produces it, there’s no way to ask Black actors to perform certain Shakespeare pieces, or actors of any minority to perform certain pieces without exposing them to the traumatic experience of needing to interact with these systems of inequality, and then play these racist caricatures within it.

HollandYeah. I mean, it’s true for like most the canon, I think. In the space that I was working on last year, I was–I’ve always wanted to be Titania. (Laughs.) But I got cast as Oberon. And I was like, well, that’s halfway there. And in that process, also some misogyny. (Laughs.) It’s not even just misogyny. I mean, he drugs his wife, steals a child. Like, there’s so much that he does, to, like, get away with it. I was like, “This is actually a really terrible father figure.” And then I was like, “And I’m playing this in a role as a female.” And it was just like, it was becoming hard for me to–like, usually, I can, like, find love for somebody, but I was like, ugh, ugh, the deeper I got into that I was like, “This guy. No.”

It’s just like, so upsetting because I–this gets back to programming because, again, love a good movie, but also like, Midsummer is so beloved. And like, so fun and funny, but it’s also so problematic. But yeah, in terms of like, the weight, that–and that’s like, that’s one space where I was like, usually I’m able to find empathy, and, like, really get into the character’s headspace. And I was, like–I just couldn’t do it. I tried really hard, but I think the other part was, like, that was in a rep, where I was also playing other characters. And again, I just had no space to–there was no space for joy. And I think that like that was highlighted even more so because these rehearsals were happening, again, in the midst of the uprising. And also like coming up to Juneteenth. 

So like, in this play, I was, like, playing the what, the big bad dad, and then opposite that I was playing Hippolyta. So I’m like, also enslaved, the captive. And then in another play, I was playing a variety of, like, soldiers, and traders and jailers. And then in another play, I was like, essentially, like, the quote-unquote, like, you know, hero, heroine, but of course, who gets strangled at the end. It’s like, well, it took me a second to unpack why that felt uncomfortable, and had the pandemic not happened, I would have performed those plays, and probably still would be unpacking why I was, like, felt why something felt off. But because of the pandemic, I had enough time and space away to look at it from that distance and see how I’ve been placed. 

And the fact that, as a black person working with a classical repertory theatre company, that, like prides itself on, you know, looking at systems of oppression, but like never having had a conversation in the room about race and how I was cast, and how the other black people in the room were cast, which again, I like took a step back, I was like, “Oh, this is actually a problem, we should have actually, like talked about this, like, should have had a substantive conversation about race, in the same way that we had a substantive conversation and facilitated exercises around intimacy.” And so that, that conversation was something that I had to ask for in the room.

And, again, this is all about learning experience. Sorry, emotions. That was a space. I don’t really, like, want to neg on any of it. It just taught me that–I think it was the first time that I stood up for myself and my people in a way that I had not before. Because again, similar to Cobb’s story, “gonna to get that job,” right? But I kept pushing at it. I kept asking questions and being present in the room. Because it shouldn’t have to be that way. Like, the feelings are valid. And also like, I think that–again, this is very circular–but circling back to like, being in a majority of rooms, rooms that are majority white with audiences that are majority white, like there’s a certain–there’s a weight, there’s a labor that’s being done. And it’s hard to do a case study to measure the impact that that has, but I would say that it does take its toll. And having no advocacy… I mean, sure, there are some old heads who were like, “Well, you know, there’s just the things that you do to, like, make sure that’s fine for you, and get bye.” And that’s great. Have those boundaries. Or also, like, walk away. But like, why do you have to have those boundaries built? Because the system doesn’t allow for anything else, I think. So it’s just like, knowing that, knowing that going in, is helpful. And it’s something that I didn’t know going in, based on the programming that I was raised with. And that’s fine. I learned, I’m alive.

HalpernYeah, yeah. That’s very powerful. I would love to hear–I mean, if you’d like to share–about how that questioning and conversation process went, in this specific production, I would love to hear about it. But I would also love to hear how you think it could go, or how you would want it to go.

HollandI don’t know. That process. I mean, again, I kindly held space in that room. I asked for facilitation. We didn’t get that. So I had to, like, pseudo-facilitate it in a week of, like, reading through the plays. And, like, each time there was enough space to talk and ask a question, I did. And then eventually, there came an admitted instance of consciously racist casting. After three days of, like, holding space. And I was like, “Well, this is why we should have had this conversation ages ago.” And, you know, I had worked at this space before, and I think that I had taken for granted things that I’d questioned earlier. Just has to be very careful. Language, funny. Language is very important. And having well defined definitions of–having well defined definitions and community agreements and spaces are super helpful. Because if one person has a definition of how a thing is, and not all of it is, like, a “known” amongst the group, then there’s definitely many opportunities for hurt, unnecessarily. So yeah. Advocacy.

HalpernYeah, that makes a lot of sense. On a slightly more positive note, I hope, I would love to hear on why you wanted to play Titania, what that role meant to you, and other roles that you hope someday to take on, if there are any?

HollandI don’t know. I mean, why Titania? She’s the Earth Mother, right? Unfortunately, that also is a trope that I fall into. But why hasn’t anybody given me the opportunity to take it? Because she’s the queen. So it’s interesting. Yeah, yeah. 

That being said, I don’t know if, like, I actually want to do much more Shakespeare in general. For the most part, I’m not interested, based on that experience. That experience, in general, turned me off. But I was also, like, starting to have issues with theater in general. But like, for me, like in terms of Shakespeare, I think the Canon is rife with bigotry. And there’s just like, you know, if you don’t have mechanisms for your artists, and also for your audiences, to have frank conversations about, like, the troublesome content and themes, and like, if you’re not partnering with programs that are working to combat these themes in the world, then what are we doing in theater besides, like, normalizing these behaviors? It’s just, it’s a lot. I’m bored. I think, I think Shakespeare is, at this point, right now–sure, it might change–but I feel like I hold Shakespeare in the same vein that I hold Dr. Seuss. So I’m really thankful for their wordplay. And I’m glad that like, that exists as a thing for me to look at and be like, “Ooh, I can do that too.” Or like, I hope that other people can see like, “Ooh, that’s fun. I want to do my own version.” And I’d want to see work that’s, like, reflective of like, the pleasure of wordplay and telling different stories.

You know, I want to see–

HalpernThat, that–

HollandYou know, I want to see–oh, go ahead–

HalpernNo, go ahead, go ahead.

HollandI just want to see, I want to see Shakespeare–if it’s going to be done at all, if I would, if someone were to talk me into it, it would probably have to be a BIPOC, femme, queer perspective, or else, like, honestly, I don’t know if it’s worth it. At this point, I know what every other version looks like. (Laughs.)

HalpernYes, that makes a lot of sense to me. And I think it’s very well put. We are, unfortunately, a little bit running out of time. 

HollandOh my gosh, I talk so much.

HalpernOh, no, I appreciated it. I just want to make sure you have a couple minutes here in case there is anything you’d like to go back to, any answers you want to expand on, or anything else you’d like to close with?

HollandUm, I dunno, I think, hopes for the future. For me, personally, in terms of theater, I’ve been working to, like, divorce myself from it, in a way, because I had for some reason, married myself to my work. That’s another adage that doesn’t–ew. “You’re married to your work. It’s great.” But actually no, because there are certain things that I’m never going to get out of theater as a relationship. And so that experience last year really helped to solidify what I had not been able to articulate for myself, personally, for my own future. Or at least, regional theater. If I’m going to be performing, it’s on my own terms, which for me means like, I’m excited, and it’s something that I desire, where I’m also getting paid well. And then like, I’m also–in the same vein, theatre– I’m also interested in writing and directing and dramaturgy, so we’ll see, we’ll see. I’m exploring those things. 

But in terms of theater as a whole, what do I hope for it? I think that I hope that we get out of black box and into communities. I hope that we have education in-house and with our audiences. I hope that there’s equity across the board in terms of, like, advocacy, representation and compensation, because so many people made more money on unemployment than they did before the pandemic or working however many jobs that they had to. So like, that’s the whole thing that like–this gets us outside of this silo of theater that like, obviously needs to be talked about. 

But yeah. I don’t know. Change is good. I don’t know why people are so scared of change. It’s like a natural law of the universe. That’s, that’s all I got. Yeah.

HalpernYeah. And what you have got is amazing. I want to thank you again, and a million times, for your time today, but especially for your honesty and vulnerability. This has been lovely. And I’m going to stop the recording now.

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