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On Day Two of rehearsal for the Scottish Play at STC, Nikkole Salter (Lady Macbeth) and Jesse J. Perez (Macbeth) sat down to get to know each other—and we listened in. Who wouldn’t want to be a fly on the wall at the Macbeths’ first date?
NIKKOLE SALTER: On the Shakespeare front: I’d do Othello. The only Shakespeare part I’ve really wanted to play which I’ve had yet to play is Emilia.
JESSE J. PEREZ: No kidding, that’s a good one.
NS: It’s the only one I’ve wanted to play. I haven’t wanted to be Helena, Rosaline, none of those characters. I want to be Emilia.
JP: And now you’re playing The Lady.
NS: And now I’m playing Lady M—and it freaked me out a little bit. Can I be Lady M?! Am I at that place in my career? Side anecdote: My agents asked if I wanted to go out for Raisin in the Sun. And I said sure. They sent the sides, but they were the wrong sides. And I told them, “Send them again, or just tell me the scene, I know the whole play.” And they’re like, “Oh, we’re so sorry…” And then they sent the same sides. And I’m like, “Now look: I need the sides for the audition, it’s tomorrow!”
NS: “Send me the Beneatha sides.” And there was just silence on the other end of the phone.
JP: They didn’t even want to speak.
NS: They were like “No…yeah…you’re not Beneatha anymore.” And I was like, “Oh! What’s next?! I’m going to wake up and be Mama in a couple of years.”
JP: You know, I thought these guys were older too, Macbeth and Lady M. And yet, maybe not, you know.
NS: Is that their folly? Lack of wisdom?
JP: We’re not that young, you know what I’m saying.
NS: I am! I don’t know what you’re talking about. That’s for the record. I don’t know what he’s talking about.
JP: I didn’t want to come out and say it, but then it hit me: Oh, wait a minute. Maybe it is time to play this older bracket of characters. And I’m not saying old, but—
JP: I just have to own up to it after a while. I’m headed out of a certain phase.
NS: Yeah, I don’t know if younger is better. I don’t know, would you go back and be younger?
JP: No, no.
NS: Exactly, I wouldn’t.
JP: No, I like where I’m at—in growth, in being a student of the world.
NS: And I like the person I am now…yeah, absolutely.
JP: I feel like I’m filling myself out and doing roles like this, which…I was sending a text about it today and I was almost in tears, like, I’m actually playing this, I’m actually doing this thing.
NS: Yeah, man…So, what’s your process?
JP: Getting to know the play as best as I possibly can through what is written—and then jumping off. But in a way that the director can guide me and poke me towards the overall story with everyone else. Because you know, it’s definitely an ensemble, I need everybody. You know? I need everybody.
NS: We’ve got you.
JP: It’s a company. When I saw everyone yesterday, it really touched my heart. Not just to see all that color, but to hear people like us speak it. And speak it well.
NS: Easily. With humor and grace.
JP: We’re feeling things in a circle. And for me that’s it. Storytelling to each other—and the audience gets to look in and see our stories happening. Then we’re doing our jobs, you know.
JP: Where did you go to school, where did you come from?
NS: I went to Howard University for undergrad…yeah, D.C.! I forget we’re in D.C. I was in school during the time of Al Freeman, Sybil Roberts, Henri Edmonds, Joe Selmon, Vera Katz, Reggie Ray. A lot of those guys are passed now which is strange to me. Then I went to NYU for graduate acting. And speaking of passed, the great Zelda Fichandler recently passed and Ron Van Lieu’s stopped working. That was my era of education.
JP: It was a special time. But I think we’re going to learn a lot through this thing. You know? I feel like Liesl is revealing the play to me in a new way. I have that shorthand with Liesl because it’s my third or fourth production I’m doing with her.
NS: Liesl’s take to me is timely and fresh. It’s totally changed how I—when I read for the role, and when I got the role, I had a certain idea of the world I would be inhabiting. And now it’s sort of flip-flopped. It brought the play closer to me actually.
JP: Like a new play.
NS: But closer to me. I think many people feel removed from Shakespeare right at the beginning—you just say Shakespeare and they’re like, “Hmm, that’s what upper crust people do.” They don’t know, actually, that’s about you. That’s about us. It’s about this. It’s about now.
JP: I feel like it’s really American in a certain way. And that’s the problem and the solution. Let’s put it out there and put it on the table to see if change can ripple.
NS: I don’t know if it’s going to cause change as much as promote awareness. We as Americans can get caught in the bubble of pursuing our own American dream. We are not always cognizant of the dark truth behind how the things of our lives come to be.
JP: That’s what happens to our characters actually.
NS: Exactly! They become aware. Lady Macbeth had no idea—
JP: And then all of a sudden—
NS: —and now she knows. Like Notorious B.I.G. would say: “If you don’t know, now you know.”
JP: She thinks, we can do this.
NS: At the moment of her inciting the assassination, I believe she has no real understanding of the ramifications of her proposal. She doesn’t really know the context in which she’s living. She thinks she knows. You know what I mean? She doesn’t see that there’s a larger story looming. She’s so focused on the crown, on being a protagonist, she doesn’t see there’s a larger story being written. She doesn’t see those clouds looming, but we do.
I felt connected to Liesl’s take…I feel like what I do is spiritual. When I get a role I feel like it is as much for me as anybody else. How did I attract this? What can I bring to it? And what am I supposed to take from it? I thought, “Oh, lord, am I a murderer?”
I don’t know the answer to that question. I think that’s one of the joys of the process of embodying a role: I will know.
Photo: Jesse J. Perez and Nikkole Salter by Tony Powell.