J. M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan and Wendy” adapted by Lauren Gunderson and directed by Alan Paul is presently playing at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. until January 12, 2020.
“Peter Pan” by J. M. Barrie is a classic story that takes our minds to an imaginary land, Neverland, where we not only follow Peter and his friend, Wendy, though wonderful adventures with pirates and native Americans but learn about the child that lives in all of us.
Lauren Gunderson has reimagined the tale while still maintaining the charm that beguiled us since it was written over 100 years ago. As Gunderson explains, “Obviously, we’re doing some flying, we’re having swordfights, we’re going to meet some fairies, and we’re going to go above ground, underground, and there may even be a mermaid. We want to let the original and all its fantasy shine because, why would I ever touch that? That stuff is great. That’s why I love that story.”
Associate Artistic Director, Alan Paul, a Helen Hayes Award-winning director and director of this production, describes this conception of Gunderson’s play, “At its core, Peter Pan is about imagination. Rather than go small, we have decided to go big! There will be sumptuous sets, flying, a mischievous and magical Tinkerbell, an enormous crocodile, and even a real dog playing Nana.”
Recent Emmy Award-winner Jason Sherwood designed this Neverland and Loren Shaw, a two-time Drama Desk nominee, designed the costumes.
The story has refocused our attention to differently conceived portrayals of Wendy Darling and Tiger Lily played by STC newcomers, Sinclair Daniel and Isabella Star LaBlanc. The two women join Justin Mark, also making his STC debut, as Peter. The story now focuses on the female characters and explores how young women, and men, try to find their place in their world.
Gunderson felt this play gave her “a chance to address the sexism and racism of the original, and make this play of feminism, anti-colonialism and anti-racism, and bring together this wonderful cohort of young people to tell a story of how they triumph together.”
Gunderson’s other works contain strong and smart females who never lose their charm and grace. Wendy in this Gunderson version of “Peter Pan and Wendy” is a young scientist whose personal hero is Marie Curie.
However, a primary importance for Gunderson was to deal with how Barrie portrayed the indigenous Americans in the original. She has given Tiger Lily a real voice as well as respect and empowerment. Wendy in this version actually finds Tiger Lily inspirational.
I had the chance to interview Isabella Star LaBlanc who plays this reimagined Tiger Lily.
Bio: REGIONAL: Jungle Theater: “The Wolves,” “Little Women” Mixed Blood Theater: “Autonomy” Guthrie Theater: “Water is Sacred” Cincinnati Shakespeare Company: “August: Osage County” Children’s Theater Company: “Peter Pan”. FILM: “The Coyote Way” (Sundance Film Festival Native Film Lab). OTHER: 2017 CBS Drama Diversity Casting Initiative Participant.
- Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
My family is from the Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota reservation in South Dakota, but I was born and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota. Minnesota is unbearably cold for five months every winter. So, interesting things to do inside, are in high demand— making it a very appreciative theater town and a great place for a kid who loves stories to grow up. I started working regionally when I was ten and have really been in love with this work ever since. Being an actor is truly the weirdest most wonderful job, and I’m so grateful that it allows me to explore new places like Neverland and DC (both of which are above freezing. Sorry Minnesota).
- What was your favorite role before Tiger Lily?
I tend to have a hard time picking favorites, but I do really gravitate to roles that are quietly powerful. I love a character that carries a lot of gravity with few words. Like #00 in Sarah Delappe’s “The Wolves,” or Johnna Monevata in Tracy Lett’s “August: Osage County.”
- Have you ever read “Peter Pan,” seen the play or the Disney movie and did this affect how you played the part of Tiger Lily?
I don’t remember ever reading the book or watching the movie as a kid. But it was enough a part of our cultural vernacular that I still knew it. I knew who Peter Pan was, I knew Tinkerbell, and I definitely knew how unfavorably and unfairly it represented my people. For that reason, it wasn’t ever a story I could connect to. So, getting to play this role now, means I get to discover all the really lovely parts of this world, that for me, have always been overshadowed by the hurtful ones.
- How do you think Lauren Gunderson’s “Peter Pan” is different from previous adaptations?
I’ve only done Peter Pan one other time in my career. I did an adaptation of “Peter Pan: The Musical” where the Native people of Neverland were replaced by a group of “lost-boy-esque” girls. I always respected that adaptation and really commend the work done to remove the pre-existing racism in the original. But I do think that’s only the first step in fixing this story. As an artistic community, I think we not only have a responsibility to remove and condemn harmful narratives about Native people, but to also seek out and replace them with honest ones. That’s what excites me about this show. Tiger Lily is Native, and she is strong and cool, and she comes from the people that loved Neverland first. It’s an honor to be part of reclaiming this world for indigenous folks.
- Is there a role you have not done but would love to do in the future after “Peter Pan?”
I’ve never done any classics. For a long time, I thought, as a Native actor, there wasn’t much place for me in Shakespeare. But working with two classical theaters this year (Cincinnati Shakespeare and now STC) has given me a new appreciation for these works and for what it would mean for me to do them. Like Peter Pan, there’s a reason we keep telling these stories, and I think telling them different ways, with different voices, only makes them richer. I would love to play Perdita or Paulina in “A Winter’s Tale” one day.
Joining the three central actors in the cast are Jenni Barber (Tinkerbell/Mrs. Darling), Derek Smith (Captain Hook/Mr. Darling), Tom Story (Smee), Chauncy Chestnut (Michael Darling), Christopher Flaim (John Darling), Michael Glenn (Pirate), Francisco Gonzáez (Tootles), Joriah Kwame (Slightly), Ronen Lewis (Curly), Calvin McCullough (Pirate), Gregory Wooddell (Pirate),Tendo Nsubuga (Twin), Darren Alford (Twin), Oliver Archibald (Ensemble), Megan Huynh (Ensemble) and Joseph Respicio (Ensemble).
“Wendy and Peter Pan” will be playing at Shakespeare Theatre Company at the Harman Center for the Arts, 516 8th Street SE, Washington, DC 20003 until Sunday, January 12, 2020. Tickets are available online. For information on “Peter Pan and Wendy” and upcoming shows go to STC’s website.