Black Shakespeare(ans) Database

Maria Mukuka

Artist Profile by Addison Wood


Maria Mukuka is a Greek-Zambian actress based in New York City. She  received a Bachelor of Arts in theater from Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts at the New School and a Master of Fine Arts in acting from Brooklyn College. Her one-woman  theatrical debut, Race Free, premiered at the United Solo Theatre Festival. Her Shakespearean roles include the Queen’s Lady in the Public Theater’s 2021 production of Richard II and the Delacorte Theater’s production of Coriolanus. In Zambia, her roles have included Chief Jones in the eponymously titled play (an adaptation of O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones developed and directed by Mukuka) and Precious in Swaggering Braggadocio.

Contact Information

Bret Adams Ltd Artists Agency: (212) 765-5630


Full Interview Transcript


Wood: Great, thank you for being here with me. My first question is: has isolation during the pandemic changed your approach to acting? Are you more aware of any particular aspects of stage performance? 

Mukuka: Because I’ve also been teaching online, I think we’ve taken for granted the abilities that were afforded on stage. And I feel like a lot of the time Zoom is considered somehow a hindrance to the things that we were able to do on stage. But I think it has actually just highlighted a couple of things that we took for granted and that came easier to us. And so a lot of the leaning-in that we have to do on Zoom, we don’t have to do as much in person. But I think we’ve tended to overlook some of those things. So I think just basic listening, responding, and taking in information from our scene partners and the people on stage with us is something that has been brought to the forefront for me as a teacher. But also as a performer as well, and then through our students all the time. 

Wood: So in that Zoom space, do you see that being closer in style to film acting or stage acting, or is it something different entirely? 

Mukuka: I think it’s something in between. I feel like camera work is a little bit more specific, right? There is movement, but it isn’t as free anymore with particular styles and genres. But with Zoom, you have a box, but it isn’t as small as you think it is because it has a lot of depth as well. And then with audio you can actually step out of frame and still be heard. Whereas on camera it’s very rare that we have scenes where one person spends a bit of time off camera. And so I think it is something in between, which is what makes it so interesting. I think for someone who typically works on stage it can be weird to be on this online platform and then step back and do stage work. 

Wood: Have you been conscious of the differences in how audiences might perceive Zoom acting as opposed to our stage or film acting? 

Mukuka: Yeah, I think a lot of my actor friends dread watching Zoom plays, even though there’s a lot of times when we just show up to support our friends. It’s just so easy in a world like today where we’ve got social media on our phones so readily available. It’s so easy to be distracted by the things that you can do on your laptop while you have the Zoom screen off to one side. So I don’t think the experiences are similar for an audience member. For us as performers, you learn so much more by having to use this platform as your main communication point with your fellow actor and your scene partner. But for audiences being there in person, seeing the actor live, there’s no replacement for that. And I think as soon as it’s safe to, I think we’re just going to get off [Zoom] completely. 

Wood: Have you seen a change in audience perception, not only in the Covid pandemic era, but before that? Do you see a difference in how audiences have received what we would consider nontraditional Shakespeare performances (all gender cast performances, for example)?

Mukuka: I think audiences and creatives in general are a lot more open to diverse and different casting with Shakespeare, even casting directors. I’m not typically cast in the United States just because I look a little different from the way that I sound, and color casting here is something of its own. So a lot of times I’m put in by my own representation into Shakespeare work because they know that it’s so big and so classic that it could handle any kind of different casting. I don’t think audiences are shocked anymore. But also audience etiquette is one that has also changed drastically. Also culturally it is kind of different. You sometimes can tell when an audience is thinking, just because we’ve been taught to be quiet in a theater and laugh at a low volume unless everybody else is laughing. So there’s this limit to how much you can actually receive as an actor on stage in a place like New York versus where I’m from in Zambia, where I think we’re encouraged as audience members to even respond or ask questions to the people who are on stage. 

Wood: You talked about the openness of Shakespearian work in particular. Is there anything from that openness that you believe should be applied to theater writ large as opposed to specifically Shakespearean or classical theater?

Mukuka: I think this is something that the casting world in general is trying to lean towards colorblind casting, which can also be kind of problematic. A lot of times I was given roles that were written for typically middle aged white women. And so I was stepping into a background or a playing field that I wasn’t particularly familiar with from my own lived experience, especially not in the United States. So there is the danger of saying, “come in, play this role, but there is nothing else that we’re going to change about it.” And then, of course, you’re expected to speak in a way that you don’t normally or relate to people in a way that doesn’t match up with your lived experience. But definitely I think the openness of the casting that we see in Shakespeare is something that we actually see in the real world. We see diverse families, we see diverse friend groups. When it’s casting for theater and film, we don’t see that anymore. And it’s not at all representative of the real world that we live in. I think we do need that broadness in casting and theater, but I think that it needs to be done mindfully just so that our actors don’t feel like they’re betraying themselves when they’re putting on these performances.

Wood: And especially in television, I know we’ve seen a significant shift in casting, especially since last summer. And with the racial reckoning that’s been happening in the states, has that at all transitioned into theater? Has theater in any way undergone change during or since the events of last summer? 

Mukuka: Definitely. I really think so. I think it’s just been a shame that because of the pandemic, we haven’t been able to really see those effects just yet. The Public Theater is about to put up a West African version of The Merry Wives of Windsor, which is going to be so interesting. It’s being done in a West African dialect and being adapted by an American Nigerian contemporary playwright, who’s gone in and actually altered the language so that that dialect really does live in the text. So that’s very interesting. And there are a lot of other off-Broadway and Broadway houses that are changing what would be their normal programming so that it does reflect what’s happening in the world.

Wood: Specifically with that West African example that you gave, when you take on a character, do you view that character as fundamentally Black, or is the identity of that character in some way separate from your personal identity as an artist? 

Mukuka: That’s a great question. I have my own different understanding of character, unless it’s based off of a person who’s living or who has lived, it’s just words on a page. And so by speaking those words, all of a sudden, I become the person that everybody sees and attributes these characteristics to. So without even trying to, just by saying those words, I do embody this particular person. So there is no way to run away from who you actually are. Just because that’s all you’re ever able to bring to a role. Because of my own upbringing, I think of myself more as culturally bound to places and to nationalities, but not so much to color. And I don’t want to limit myself in that way either. So it’s more about experiences and nationality.

Wood: And speaking of lived experience, when you begin a new play, do you typically engage in dramaturgical work, especially if this is a play that has a specific historical setting? 

Mukuka: I can’t walk into an audition room and not know what I’m saying, which is so easy with Shakespeare. So even if you don’t know one word or one particular phrase in a 20 line monologue, it’s going to stand out. The audience hears that right away and definitely auditioners and directors pick up on that. So, yeah, I think research goes right along with beginning to learn lines. I think as soon as I receive text, I have to start looking up stuff and looking into historical background as well. And maybe even looking at specific productions, to look at past performances just to get an idea, an understanding of what these words said out loud and alive sound like. 

Wood: Is there a particular play, be it Shakespearean or otherwise, which you connect to, especially in regards to how it really relates to racial or gender identity? 

Mukuka: Oh, that’s a good question. Well, I’m sure there’s Othello. Shakespeare can be applied to so many different things because it’s so universal and also vast in subject matter. Recently in my training, I worked on Julius Caesar and placed it in the African context. And I know that the BBC did a really great production of that as well which investigated African political power structures by studying Julius Caesar and placing it that way. So that was one cool example. I think that Shakespeare could explore racial issues if there’s a little bit of tweaking. All of a sudden the words highlight anything if placed in the right context. 

Wood:  And going into the point about political power in Africa with the political climate we’re living in, do you believe that in some ways the political ramifications of Shakespeare’s work is more profound or clear? And do you at all believe that your own work has become more political to yourself or to the audience? 

Mukuka: I think that if a director is willing to be bold enough to make those direct references, then definitely I think Shakespeare’s work can help us highlight a lot of what’s going on right now. And I think it just takes a bunch of artists who are fearless enough to make those direct connections and to present that to an audience. I, for one, have always enjoyed putting up work and creating work of my own that has social commentary. Which is a little bit challenging because when I’m back home in Zambia, we can’t draw the kinds of political connections as openly as an artist in the United States might be able to. So there’s a little bit of care that we have to take when we do that kind of work. But I’ve always been a fan of political work and socially relevant work.

Wood: Do you have any thoughts on certain companies removing segments [of plays] if they’re going to be performing Shakespeare because of its dated element or its problematic aspects?

Mukuka:  I think because the work has proven to be timeless and because the copies are available everywhere and anywhere, I don’t think it’s a bastardization of the work anymore. One could access the original copy at any time. And then it just becomes a director’s or a creative’s way of personalizing for the company that they have. I was working on a production of Chekhov where somebody was supposed to touch my hair. Yelena was touching my hair, as Sonya, and because of the casting racially, that got changed. And I’m sure a lot of people or a lot of Russians might not have agreed with that. But I think that what was more important was having the actors in the room feel comfortable and feel proud of the work that they were about to present. And so I think that’s the same thing with Shakespeare, where we’re opening doors and now that we have diverse creatives on the other side of the desk. I think it’s very important to honor first the people who are in the space, then the text. Shakespeare is dead, he doesn’t care. 

Wood: Is there a particular Shakespeare play a role that you’ve had a special attachment to but have never been able to perform on stage or on film? 

Mukuka: Weirdly, I would enjoy playing either Hamlet, or Cassius from Julius Caesar

Wood: And are there ideas in Shakespearean theater and in Shakespeare’s writing that you think are especially potent in our current political era? Ones which you think have real potential to be mined today by artists?

Mukuka: I don’t think any of his ideas have stopped being relevant, which is a little alarming. He talks about all the same things that we’re still struggling with. There’s power dynamics, there’s infidelity, there’s lovers unable to be connected, which is some form of segregation as well. Because of family issues, social status issues, and wealth, people aren’t able to interact with the people that they want to interact with. All of those things still stand. And that’s what makes Shakespeare so great. It’s that we still are able to relate wholeheartedly to the themes that he was exploring in his time and place. But I think it’s also a little worrying that we haven’t made any progress as far as humanity since Shakespeare’s time. 

Wood:  Do you have a background at all in classical theater other than Shakespeare? 

Mukuka: A little bit of ancient Greek plays. I think a little bit more so than normal just because I’m half Greek as well. But in terms of training programs, no. I think what was really pushed was Shakespeare and then the rest was modern and contemporary works.

Wood: And my final question is: if you could see one specific change made to classical theater, Shakespearean theater, or theater in general, what change would that be? 

Mukuka: I think we need to continue to diversify, but not in the surface level sense of the word or the idea. We need to have different sizes of bodies, shades of people, and nationalities. We need different types of people playing certain roles. If there’s a role where we’re casting a king or we’re casting a queen, it shouldn’t be the typical, beautiful, widely celebrated woman or man as those roles. So I think that we need to diversify in a deeper sense and then also allow people to meet Shakespeare where he’s at. So we need to allow actors to really bring a full sense of themselves into their work. I’ve been fortunate enough to do quite a bit of work at the Public Theater. And each time I go, their casting department is brilliant. They let me speak the way I normally do. So I never really have to make accent shifts. And so that feels wonderful to me, to be able to bring my own bicultural background into the role that I’m playing. But I think that we need to see a lot more than that because all of us are quite complex, and all of us have got different ways that we express femininity and masculinity. And so I think we need to see diverse roles in that sense, not in the sense of, “all right, I’m casting a black person, someone from Japan, and then a bunch of white Americans.”

Wood: Great. Thank you so much.

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