Nikki James Takes on Raccoons and Portia in the Park

Nikki M. James
Nikki M. James

Every summer theater stars flock to the park. This year, Nikki James, a Tony winner for The Book of Mormon who is best known for her musical theater performances, is testing her classical chops playing Portia, Brutus' wife, in Julius Caesar.

"It's one of the single greatest theatrical experiences you can have," James said of performing at the Delacorte. "That is how they get us to do it. They are not paying us a ton of money. Some of the conditions are fascinating. The heat, it might rain, and there are raccoons and other critters. But during tech rehearsals, I sit there, and I watch incredibly talented actors work through their scene and behind them was Belvedere Castle. It's so magical. That is how they get us to do it. They trick us with our heart strings."

James got a taste for performing in Central Park last year when she played Viola in the Public Works musical production of Twelfth Night, but she was a fan of Shakespeare in the Park well before that. "I have been seeing Shakespeare in the Park since I moved to New York in 1999," she explained. "In fact, I made a little business with a friend when they were doing The Seagull. On a few occasions, I spent the night on the street outside the Public on Lafayette Street and then sold the tickets on Craig's List. I saw it first, but then I realized the waiting wasn't so bad."

James had some experience waiting out eve prior to that--she was a Rent-head with all the waiting outside that entailed. But her Shakespeare in the Park line experience was a little more deluxe, featuring an air mattress purchase from the nearby K-Mart.

She's come a long way since those days, with four Broadway credits and one Tony Award to her name. This fall she will assistant direct the Broadway revival of Once on This Island, directed by Michael Arden. She was inspired to take a "tiny baby step" in this direction by her Public Works experience.

"Public Works was one of the single best professional experiences I've had in a long time," James said. "It was really awesome to be reminded that we can make theater just for fun. You can create a community of people to create art. Specifically working with non-professionals, our director asked the professionals to be leaders. I would find myself on 10 minute breaks with an amateur performer coming up to me and asking me a question. I found myself loving that experience of it."

But she's not leaving acting just yet. And she's loving working through Julius Caesar. James said the character of Portia was never on her "must do" list, but when Public Theater Artistic Director Oskar Eustis calls, she answers. Eustis doesn't direct much anymore, so it was a rare treat to be able to work with him. Plus Julius Caesar has some things to teach America in 2017.

"It is about democracy and the fragility of the system we have bought into," James stated. "Even in the system of being free for everyone, there are levels. There is no way to make anything completely and totally democratic. When you solve one problem, you create another problem. It's wonderful to be exploring the idea of democracy and the possibility of a dictatorship and what people are willing to do to avoid that. We've elected a president who every single day is surprising us, and that is what was happening in Rome. "

Like the time, her character has often been seen as problematic, on one hand strong and independent and on the other hand fragile and a little crazy. (In addition to killing herself, she self-mutilates after all.) "What I'm really curious about is this real sense of independence; she wants to be in the front with him in the trenches. But whatever is happening in her world is so different from the world she lived in yesterday. The turmoil and the upset, it is throwing everything off," she said.

In the original text, Portia says "I have a man's mind, but a woman's might." This production cuts the line because it's not that Portia is a woman. Anyone would be rocked. Portia is the same woman who professed herself an equal of her husband Brutus in the beginning of the play. She’s just had a lot to handle.

"The one thing that I've found that is really important to me is that I think Portia and Brutus are two people who love each other deeply," James said. "I don't think she is a child bride or a trophy wife or anything like that. I really see her as more of a Michelle Obama than a Melania Trump. If the world didn't turn upside down, she would be a powerful political wife."

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