Black Shakespeare(ans) Database

Mary E. Hodges

Artist Profile by Maya Holt


Mary E. Hodges is a classically trained actress and director who has been in numerous productions spanning Shakespeare and contemporary theater. Mary was raised by her amazing mother Mary Eunice Hodges and her late father, Nelson Hodges Sr. of Middlesex County, Virginia. Mary has a B.F.A in Acting (Virginia Commonwealth University) and M.F.A in Acting (University of Connecticut). She has performed on stage from Berkeley Repertory to South Florida, to The Berkshires in Western Massachusetts. When not performing herself, Mary can be found developing and directing new work with playwrights in New York City. Mary lives with her son Amri in Harlem USA.

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Full Interview Transcript


Hodges: My name is Mary E. Hodges. I use the “E”– the “E” stands for Eunice— I use the “E” because that’s my professional name with the unions, just to be clear about that. I come from a long line of Mary Eunices; I’m not the first Mary Eunice. I’m named after my mother, and then there are other Mary Eunices probably no longer living. That name is passed down, so I just want to acknowledge the matriarchs in my family. 

I am currently based out of New York and Virginia. Let me go backwards for a bit. I have my Master’s of Fine Arts from the University of Connecticut in acting and my Bachelor’s in Fine Arts in acting from Virginia Commonwealth University. Virginia Commonwealth University of course is in Virginia in Richmond and UConn, the main campus, in Storrs Connecticut.   

How did I come into acting… Well it wasn’t something I knew I wanted to do; I kind of stumbled upon it when I was in college, an undergraduate. My major at the time was in mass communications so I thought I was going to go into the PR track. 

You know, you had to meet with your advisor, and my advisor told me I needed an arts elective, and she suggested a course called Intro to Stage Performance for Non-Majors as an arts elective. And she said “Oh, I hear really good things about it, and it’s fun. So that course met once a week over at the theatre department in the sub-level, in the basement. It was very mysterious for me at the time, I was like “Ooh, we’re going into the arts building…” And we had to trek all the way across campus because the School of Mass Communications was very kind of formal. People carried briefcases to lecture— I never forgot that. And I didn’t quite fit into that, but I didn’t know that at the time. I was trying. And the lecture halls were huge! We would trek over to the art building, and it was a total different vibration there. We met Monday night for three hours, once a week. And a grad student— I’m gonna call her out, Ronda Keiser— was a theatre major, a graduate theatre major, and she taught the course. And it was just like my advisor said— it was fun, we played games— just to set it up a little bit for you. About halfway through the course we had one-on-one meetings and she asked me what my major was, and I told her, and she said “Well, do you like it? Are you happy with your major? Do you feel passionate about it?” No one had asked me that, and it gave me pause. I was stumped! I didn’t know what to say. It was too long of a pause. Because you’re really supposed to be excited about your major! I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what I was good at! So it seemed like maybe the safe thing for me to do was “Maybe I’ll choose mass communications. Go into PR.” I mean I did some forensics in high school, which is where you do public speaking. And so I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t know what I was good at. No one told me I was good at anything— and this is key, you know, just to remember that part of it as we get into the further conversation. 

So she said “Well, it doesn’t seem like you’re really passionate about your major. Well, what I want to suggest to you is that you change your major to theatre because I think you can do it. I think you have a natural knack for acting and I think you can do this.” And that was another pause because I wasn’t expecting that. I wasn’t expecting her to say that to me. I think my response to her— I don’t remember, I have to ask her— was “Really? We just play games!” How can you determine if you’re good at something by just playing games? We were having fun! “Is this real?” 

But she told me to think about it, and if I was interested in changing my major, and that she would help me. And that I would have to audition for the School of the Arts to get into the program. She said she was serious, and “You are! You have a natural thing. I think you can do this.And I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I clung onto “You’re good at something.” And “You can make a change and have an impact.” 

And then my first production I was cast in The Women of Troy, a Greek classic. And I didn’t know anything about Greek theater. My only exposure to any classics was I in high school I believe we had to listen to Romeo and Juliet. We listened to a recording and we talked about it. That was it. So that was my shift and my really hardcore, fast introduction. I was cast as Cassandra in that production. And I always wondered: why did I get cast in that role? Being new, and not knowing very much. I would like to think now that maybe there was something that the professor, the director, saw, that there was potential there that I wasn’t aware of that I had. 

And then I was cast in a Midsummer Night’s Dream by another professor as the role of Titania. That production was also very successful, and I enjoyed it so much. And again, that was my very first Shakespeare production. I don’t think I ever had any moments of “What am I saying? What am I doing?” I think ignorance served me very well. A lot of the students came from big drama high school programs. That was not my experience. So some people had these preconceived notions of what Shakespeare is; it’s mostly the language, speaking the language. So since I didn’t have any of that I dove right in to the words and the language and what the story was. It’s like knowing what the story is. And I loved the language that Titania speaks beautifully— the imagery, the metaphors— it’s beautiful language and I loved saying it and how it came out of my mouth. I really enjoyed that first experience, and I didn’t know that that would be the beginning of doing a lot more down the road.

Holt: Were you intentionally seeking out being in classics, or did it just kinda happen that way?

Hodges: It just kind of happened that way. I didn’t deliberately go out and seek classical work.

Holt: In your professional career did you start to seek it out?

Hodges: I think after… Let’s see, what happened… I guess in grad school. Because after undergraduate I didn’t do any classical. I did a deep dive into the canon of African-American playwrights and worked with the late Ernie McClintock. We weren’t on the classics from the Black literary canon. I did a lot of that work. And then when I went off to grad school it came back again. I did one year at Arizona State in Tempe, and we did this really futuristic As You Like It production. Then I transferred from Arizona State to the University of Connecticut at Storrs. And there, I went on to do Hamlet, where I was Queen Gertrude. Hamlet, that production, was kind of a Suzuki-based production. It was highly stylized, and the setting was kind of in a monastery and it was really rich. And our Hamlet was a woman; that ruffled quite a few feathers; and then me playing Hamlet’s mother. It was quite a diverse cast, where that wasn’t popular at the time. 

Holt: That is a perfect segue, because I really wanted to ask you about your time in the all female version of Othello. You played Cassio, right?

Hodges: That’s right.

Holt: So what was that like for you being in an all-Black, all-female cast—- it was all-Black, right?

Hodges: Actually, it was multicultural. It wasn’t an all-Black cast, it was a multicultural production. Of course our lead, Othello, Debra Ann Byrd, was African-American. I’m not sure, have you looked her up?

Holt: Yeah! She actually came to our class. 

Hodges: Oh, fantastic!

Holt: Yeah we had a great time with her. She was so lovely. 

Hodges: And you know she’s touring her show, her solo show? 

Holt: Yeah, we were lucky enough— she sent us a link to it, so we got to watch a recording of the show too.

Hodges: Oh, fantastic. Yeah, I did a lot of work with Debra and Harlem Shakespeare and Take Wing and Soar. Debra and I, we got to with that about two times, really three times we got to play around with it. Because we did a virtual reading, production of it last fall. And Lisa Folby came back and played Iago, so that was really special. And we really pushed the envelope for that virtual reading, because we actually did virtual fights, if you will. We decided to just have some fun with it so that was the third time. And of course the first time was with Lisa, which was a heightened stage reading at City College with weapons and choreographed fights. And the next time we got to do it was you know, a full production. Metrezona Beverly directed it. 

Lieutenant Cassio, playing that was so much fun, first of all, and he’s one of those characters that kind of weaves in between Iago’s story and Othello’s story. He kind of hangs in between there— Shakespeare does that with quite a few of his characters. They kind of hang in there. It’s one of those roles that I think is taken for granted,because when you think of productions of Othello that you’ve seen I have to think really hard to remember Cassio. And I think that’s unfortunate. I so I really made some distinct choices for him, and every time I’ve done Cassio it’s been done as a man; I performed it as a man, not me, a woman, being Cassio. 

Holt: What was that like for you? Debra Ann talked a lot about how that was kind of a jumping off point for her own exploration of her gender— did you feel similarly?

Hodges: No, because I’ve actually done gender-bender roles before I started working with Harlem Shakespeare. I worked with Judith Shakespeare Company, which no longer exists. But Joanne Shipay— I wanna shout her out, because it’s important to uplift the pioneers, the people who have introduced you to the work. Joanne Shipay ran the Judith Shakespeare Company, and their whole mission was putting women in the power roles. So if that meant the male roles then you got to do the male roles, and men got to do the female roles, or vice versa, or it was mixed up! It wasn’t like— there’s another company, forgive me, I’m trying to think of the name — where it’s all women  and they play all the roles. Judith Shakespeare was a little different they had men and women and we just mixed it up. But the mission was that the women played the lead roles. So in that experience— that’s where I started playing men. I didn’t play any male roles in the university setting. So that was interesting, right? When I got to New York, and I think my first Shakespeare role was in Henry VI Part II where I played Jack Cade, and some other roles, because you usually have one lead role and then maybe you play ensemble roles. And that was fantastically fun. Because, you know, they would bring in a fight person to work with you to work with weapons. And I think with that one we were very creative and used a hoe, like from a spade, and that became a weapon. And then I went on and did some other work with Judith Shakespeare where I played male roles. 

So when I worked on Cassio that wasn’t a big leap for me because I had done that kind of work as far as in the body and how you move, and I already had fight experience. Not to say it wasn’t a challenge— if anything it was like “Okay, I get to use everything that I’ve been doing and do this role like I feel it could be done, and not think of the role as a sidebar or a shadow. So, if anything I was very excited to do it and bring in some flavor to the role. Because Cassio, when you look into who he is, is a person of education, intellect, and sophistication. Which is why he was chosen as Othello’s ensign and why Iago was jealous of him. He wasn’t your average Joe. So I enjoyed bringing my take to that. And also, again, men that I’ve seen play the role— sorry guys, but you know— men that I’ve seen play the role I felt missed out on that. 

Holt: Meaning that they didn’t play him as intelligently as they could have?

Hodges: One dimensional! One dimensional. It’s one thing you look good in your costume, but then what are you gonna do?

Holt:  You said since you’d already done work at the Judith Shakespeare Company, which had women playing these lead roles… Did you feel, again, feel like you were used to that sort of gender power dynamic and diversity of casting when you came into that all-female Othello? Because, just to reference Debra Ann again, that was something that she was really excited about; just having  that diverse a cast, and having such female energy in a space. Did you feel similarly, or was it something you were already used to from previous productions?


Hodges: I think what made it a little different with Harlem Shakespeare Theater was that it’s an African-American based company, so the mission is clear as far as having African-Americans in those high profile roles versus what I said to you with Judith Shakespeare which was women being a big part of the mission, of placing them in those lead roles. So the work, with them, was very specific. And there were productions where it was all African-American with Harlem Shakespeare. So this one kind of opened it up and invited others in. So, again, I had already been working that way, but just to have a company of all women… You know, we had so much fun in the dressing room! We did the one production, a whole production, where we bearded up. We did the whole nine yards with that one, and with the Elizabethan costumes. And then there are times where I didn’t feel like I needed to hide and put the facial hair— it’s all in dropping down your voice and how you carry your body. So, there’s always— whether it’s all women, or mixed cast where the women are being uplifted in it, always have been wonderful experiences. But definitely with Harlem Shakespeare you had a little bit of an extra sense of pride. Because that is the mission!

Holt: I wanted to ask— another play that we studied in this class this quarter was Keith Hamilton Cobb’s American Moore— have you read it?

Hodges: No I haven’t.

Holt: Oh, okay. Well, in it he speaks a lot about— a particular episode within the play is he’s talking about his experience I think in college, maybe in high school, of being really stymied in his career goals and in what he wanted to do as a Black actor. There’s a scene where they have to pick a monologue to memorize and he really wants to do Titania, and they’re like “Hmm, well… Why don’t you do Othello? That seems more your speed,” or whatever. And then the whole play is kind of this.. It’s like he’s auditioning for Othello but then he kind of fades in and out of this audition to talk about his history and what he’s thinking, and kind of dialogues with the casting director. Anyway, I was wondering if any of that resonates with your experience. Have you felt pigeonholed at all as a Black actress?

Hodges: Black actress as it pertains to Shakespeare?

Holt: Yes, or you can answer more broadly if you’d like to. 

Hodges: Well, that was the fun thing about our work at Judith Shakespeare. There were men who played some of the women roles. I remember when we did Richard III and a wonderful actor got to play Lady Anne, and his performance was just brilliant. I think that it’s unfortunate that people still continue to type into casts, regardless of your gender and your race. So I’ll just say that. I don’t know… it’s been interesting. When I look at kind of the body of work that I’ve done, what sticks out to me is that I’ve done more males than I’ve done women. It’s been a blessing, but at the same time I can do more than just do the male roles, right. It’s “How am I being perceived? Can I play the women roles?” I would love to play some more women roles and I’d like to keep playing male roles. And then when you go beyond the companies that I have worked with, that’s where it seems to have stopped. Like I didn’t make any traction with the bigger, larger, Shakespeare institutions. Why, I don’t know. And that frustrated me, and still frustrates me, when I see who the companies, the institutions, are selecting. And this goes into the casting and opening up your eyes in the box. It should be interesting when people start gathering again post-pandemic. Because there has been a lot of talk about this— diversity and inclusion. I mean we’ve been talking about diversity and inclusion for I don’t know how long. For me, it’s like a really tired subject. So it’s like— what are you going to do about it? Is the question. Because there are many actors that I know, of color, that are classically trained. Are they doing classical work? Some— most of us, no. Especially African-American women. We don’t get cast in Shakespeare. Unless there’s an angle to it. And that’s another thing— you know, I want to be frank here— that pisses me off. It’s like— why are we only cast if there’s an “angle?” I’m all for all-Black productions of Shakespeare, but then what about these institutions— what about the rest of your season? Are you diversifying the rest of your season, or you feel like you don’t have to because “Oh, we did that all-Black Shakespeare over the summer. We don’t have to carry it over all year. Isn’t that enough?” Or Black American actors… oh, we “don’t do Shakespeare.” But you hire people who have an accent, a dialect from another country, because “Oh it maybe sounds better, more pleasant to the ear.” That’s so insulting! So those are the two things that I’ve seen that are obstacles. And when I look back over things… you know I’m still fairly young and I hope I get a chance to… but part of me has given up on sending in my resume and pictures to these institutions. Like, how long have I been out here? And I haven’t gotten any traction— I’ve never worked at Shakespeare in the Park in New York. I’ve never worked at Shakespeare and Company. I’ve never worked at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. You name any big major Shakespeare institution, I haven’t worked there. Theater for a New Audience! Right there in New York. All they do is uplift classical work. 

Holt: Have you seen any change over your career? Is the…

Hodges: No, I haven’t. Let me stop you right there. I haven’t. Not with brown, female faces. I have not. I think people genuinely need to want to have change. I don’t believe in forcing any institution to make a change. And there’s different approaches to that. I think there’s a lot of talk, a lot of activism and visibility, but still, at the end of the day, it’s the people that are running these institutions or companies or organizations; they have to be the ones to do it and initiate it and activate it. It starts from the top down to who their casting people are. And also the directors, and the creative team, who you hire. From there, a lot of it is names too. They’re going after people who are visible in television or in film. Which is fine and good and everything, but there’s a lot of us grunts still out there who have done the time and are skilled, and are ready to do the work. So that’s what I would say to that. And then part two is yes, we need more Harlem Shakespeare Theaters. We need more classical theater of Harlem, and they need to be supported and uplifted. We need more Judith Shakespeare because a lot of companies can’t survive when they’re not receiving funding from the state. A lot of companies rely on the funding, and some of it isn’t very much. And it comes with restrictions. So we have to think about how these companies are being funded and need support. I was having a conversation— quite a few different conversations— where I was saying “Well, if I’m not being invited onto the stage, then the next thing is I would like to direct!” I would love to direct some classical work. And some Shakespeare!

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