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The Humanity in a Monster’s Eyes: Ron Cephas Jones Brings Richard III to the Public

by Josina Reaves on July 30, 2012
Ron Cephas Jones

Before the Olympics opened and began their fortnight of filling London with the best and brightest athletic stars, London held what they called the Cultural Olympiad.  The events started in June and featured performances and exhibitions in every conceivable art. Obviously, it also included a lot of Shakespeare. So much Shakespeare, in fact, that Shakespeare’s Globe, which was left out of the main planning of the Olympiad, staged its own version by having all of the bard’s plays performed in a different language by companies from different countries. That is a lot of Shakespeare, my friends.

Funnily enough, New York seems to be vying for silver as the city that puts Shakespeare on the stage a lot, too. Summertime Shakespeare usually belongs to the Public Theater, what with all of their free Central Park performances, but since they’ve given half of the season over to Stephen Sondheim with Into the Woods, you might wrongly have suspected that Shakespeare wouldn’t get his due.

Fear not, for the Public’s Mobile Shakespeare Unit, is bringing Richard III, directed by Amanda Dehnert, to the masses instead. Following so closely on the heels of Kevin Spacey and the Bridge Project’s electrifying RIII, it is a bold move to put the twisted king back on the boards, so of course the Public has to come at it sideways.

Enter Ron Cephas Jones.

Let me start by saying that the second time I saw Jones on stage at the Public was in a production of Titus Andronicus that I didn’t think I could sit through. It was bloody, naturally, but I was most disturbed by how long it took Jay O. Sanders’ Titus to find his humanity, his gentleness. I know the whole point of the play is that Titus is almost never accessible as a human, even as a father, perhaps because of how much Rome has taken out of him and away from him. But Jones, as Aaron, was fully human from the first word.

He strode onto the stage with a kind of power and immediacy that Aaron deserves but does not always get. For Jones, that raw, radiating power was never a problem. When he was on stage, it was hard to take your eyes off of him. And the most impressive thing about that performance was that I had been in the elevator with him not 20 minutes before curtain. He had been in a leather bomber jacket and a hoodie, having just come in from the cold, and he looked for all the world like a man about to go see a play, not be in one. But when Aaron entered, Jones was in complete command of that role, inhabiting Aaron’s hurts and wants and making it clear that no one else could bear as much malice with as much grace as he.

That is the man to play Richard.

The Mobile Shakespeare Unit takes plays into unlikely places to give everyone access to the best theater.  This past Saturday, July 28, the Unit was at the Cephas Center for the Arts in the Bronx, offering a free performance for anyone in the neighborhood; before that was a performance at Rikers Island. By the time the play rolls back to the Public for its final performances from August 6-25, the Unit will have given free shows with artist talk-backs in all five boroughs. Jones will be there, through it all, to fill those disparate spaces with his deep, resonating voice, his lanky, energetic form, and the truth of Richard’s humanity burning from his eyes. This is not a performance to miss.

Tickets are available by clicking here.

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