A decade ago New York audiences almost saw Josette Simon give her career-making performance as Maggie in After the Fall. But efforts to bring over the London revival of the Arthur Miller play came apart. Now, finally, the acclaimed English actress is making her long-overdue New York stage debut, playing an impressive trio of queens at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. A member of the Royal Shakespeare Company ensemble currently in residence at BAM, Simon plays Hippolyta, the Amazon Queen, and her faerie counterpart Titania, in Michael Boyd’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as Elizabeth of Valois, the lovelorn queen in Gale Edwards’s production of Schiller’s Don Carlos.
Simon’s appearance in 1984 as Rosaline in the RSC’s production of Love’s Labor’s Lost made headlines. The Leicester-born actress, who was hailed as a “striking discovery,” became the first black actress to play a significant Shakespearean role in the company in more than two decades. Her follow-up, Isabella in Nicholas Hytner’s 1987 production of Measure for Measure, caused a greater stir. Nontraditional casting was rare at the time, and the color of her skin tended to take precedence in most discussions of her work. Simon felt it necessary to reject the label “black actress” and remind journalists that she was an actress who “happened to be black.” Discussing her career and her current roles prior to a London performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream earlier this year, Simon explains, “I didn’t want to be confined or defined by my color because then it would somehow dehumanize me. I just wanted to do good work.” With her remarkable beauty and what director Hytner described as total fearlessness on stage, Simon easily took her place in the front ranks of the best actresses of her generation. As Hytner put it, she has “a highly theatrical intelligence” and “the sort of grace—spiritual and physical—that only the great classical actors possess.”
Courage and determination have marked Simon’s career from the start. Her Caribbean immigrant parents were horrified when their 16-year-old daughter quit her language studies to join drama school. “It took them a long time to get over the shock of it,” Simon recalls. “They thought: casting couch and unscrupulous directors. They certainly didn’t think Shakespeare.” But then neither did her teachers at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama. “They told me to prepare myself for disappointment because I probably wouldn’t do classics when I left school. But that’s like a red rag to a bull,” Simon laughs. “I decided then that there well may be obstacles, but I’d confront them when they came up.”
Simon reports that she was constantly reminded about the limitations of being an actor of color. But when director Michael Blakemore (Copenhagen, Kiss Me, Kate) asked her to play Miller’s troubled heroine in After the Fall (widely considered to be a fictionalized portrait of Marilyn Monroe), she had only one concern. “I didn’t want to be in a production where a director had a clever idea—just to get a bit of color. I read the part and the character stood on its own. There were Monroe insecurities contained in the character and Monroe traits in her behavior, but it wasn’t Marilyn Monroe.” Simon’s hypnotic performance in the 1990 National Theater production garnered her an Olivier nomination as well as most of the top acting awards for that year.
Simon’s career was very nearly terminated during her next appearance at the Royal National Theatre. Despite stringent regulations governing the use of guns on stage, an actor deviated from the carefully rehearsed staging and mistakenly fired a blank pistol at close range into her face during a performance of Webster’s revenge drama The White Devil. “I managed to turn my head in a matter of seconds,” Simon recalls. “I had a very lucky escape.” With typical resolve, the actress, who’d come within a hairsbreadth of losing her sight from the gun flash, made it back from the hospital for the penultimate performance of the run. “It was very scary, but I didn’t want to feel that I would have to fear being on stage,” she explains.
Simon’s most recent stage appearance, prior to the current RSC engagement, was a 1994 production of Ibsen’s Lady From the Sea. She has since concentrated on film and television work, but theater—especially the classics—is her passion. Even a play as familiar as Shakespeare’s Dream can reveal new facets. “I never realized how muscular the play is,” she says, noting that the faeries in the play are very powerful. “Things don’t happen easily,” she adds. “When Oberon takes the spell off Titania, I feel she shouldn’t wake up as if after some lovely dream. It’s a nightmare. Because, quite frankly, she’s been doing unspeakable things with a donkey!” In Don Carlos, Queen Elizabeth doesn’t have it easy either. She’s married to King Philip but is passionately in love with his son. “She has to make the awful union work for political purposes, but she hates the king. I think she’s fantastic,” marvels the actress. “She has to maintain a very ordered face and keep things very close to her chest, and yet she has to communicate what she is actually thinking. That’s a big challenge.” Simon wouldn’t have it otherwise.