"That felt wrong": Mary Zimmerman on The Jungle Book | Bleader

"That felt wrong": Mary Zimmerman on The Jungle Book

by

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

comment

Mary Zimmerman
  • Lisa Ebright
  • Mary Zimmerman
Blame the holiday crunch. Questions I submitted for director and playwright Mary Zimmerman before writing this week's column didn't make their way to her—and her responses didn't get to me—until after deadline.

The column is about objections Silk Road Rising artistic director Jamil Khoury raised after reading Zimmerman's comments in a Chicago magazine interview about her new musical, The Jungle Book. (The play, based on the Disney movie and Rudyard Kipling's stories, is now running at the Goodman Theatre.) Khoury was concerned about Zimmerman's portrayal of Silk Road people; she quickly arranged to get together with him to talk it over.

Here are some of Zimmerman's answers to me, dashed off, she explained, before she had to leave for a second get-together with Khoury and Silk Road executive director Malik Gillani—this time for dinner.

What were your intentions for [the first meeting with Khoury], and what was the result?

MZ: This deserves a much longer answer than this, but: I knew that if I could listen to him and speak with him he would see that I am not the person that it seemed he thought I was. I had great confidence in that, because it is the truth. I could try to address any misperceptions and ease the pain and confusion I felt we both must be feeling. The longer version of this has to do with, believe it or not, the advice of a Buddhist monk named Thich Nhat Hahn who I much admire, his advice regarding what to do if someone speaks ill of you. His advice is, "Do nothing" — until you can calmly listen to the person, let the person express himself and just be calm. I consciously followed that advice.

Did any of this have any effect on Jungle Book?

MZ: Only that it really rattled me. The show was about to enter tech.

Please explain the thinking behind your version (casting, performance) of King Louie and "I Wanna Be Like You."

MZ: This could use a much longer answer as well, but I met with André [De Shields] about being in the show (I had him in mind for three different roles) and we talked about all kinds of things, including the ugly historical discourse in America concerning race and evolution. André spoke to me then, and he speaks now, with great eloquence, and I would leave it to him to address this himself. I asked him to come and actually audition for me—a thing he rarely does — and to come prepared to audition for the role he most would like to play of the three we talked about—and that turned out to be King Louie. He gave the single greatest audition I've seen in 25 years. Still, I debated with myself for eight days before offering him the role. But in the end, if I hadn't cast him, it would have been because he is African-American. That would have been the only reason—the fear of the past, of the historical discourse, of the stereotypes of the past. I would have just been going along with the wounds of the past. That felt wrong: to reject this legendary talent and what he could do with this song for that. To say, "You can't work with me on this because some people still carry these moronic ideas of the past and we must never go near them until the end of time." Again, I could go on much longer about this. I feel Andre's performance is really, really layered: a virtuoso display of theatrical artistry, ferocious, somewhat confrontational and 100% brilliant.

Add a comment