Against the peaceful backdrop of Central Park’s trees, Solea Pfeiffer is hoping to create a little disruption. Currently starring in Free Shakespeare in the Park’s Hamlet as Ophelia, Pfeiffer is drawing from a deeply personal place to portray what she calls “one of the OG tragic ingénues,” explaining, “This play is about people turning their back on someone who's being very clear and direct about what is happening to them and around them. And no one’s listening until it's too late.” That frustration of not being heard is one that Pfeiffer knows all too well. “I think for women, especially women of color, there are certain spaces where what you have to say is taken at face value. But in most spaces, that is not the case.”
Pfeiffer stars in The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park production, which plays the open-air Delacorte Theater in Central Park through August 6 (the season then continues with a free musical version of The Tempest August 27 to September 3). Directed by Kenny Leon, Hamlet also stars Tony nominee Ato Blankson-Wood in the title role, in a new take on the material. The production features a predominantly Black cast, and Pfeiffer brings her own experiences as a mixed-race woman to a character that has almost always been played by a white actor. “I can't really think of that many women of color that have played Ophelia, if I've ever seen one,” she wonders.
Herself the daughter of an African American mother and a white father, Pfeiffer’s heritage is partially reflected in the story as Ophelia’s father Polonius is played by Daniel Pearce, who is white. Pfeiffer describes the production as “unapologetically Black in every sense”—the production features culturally specific staging choices, including a praise team to sing hymns, and a re-imagination of the First Player’s speech in Act II Scene 2 as a rap song.
Pfeiffer made her Broadway debut with Almost Famous last year, playing the enigmatic Penny Lane and showing off her impressive vocals that have quickly made her a musical theatre favorite (she’s due to be back on Broadway this fall, in a role she can’t yet reveal to Playbill). But Ophelia has been a welcome change of pace for the actor.
The Black-led production has been a rewarding experience for her because diverse points-of-view are still not always given equal weight in the theatre industry as a whole. The young actor has often felt herself silenced and underestimated in her career, as a woman and as someone who is mixed-race.
“I think certain point of views are held at a much higher cachet for no reason other than we are conditioned to feel that way. And I think that's what happens with Ophelia. There are times when you want to scream because you're like, ‘I really have something to say.’ And it doesn't matter how eloquent I am, it doesn't matter how right I am,” she explains. Pfeiffer is grounding her Ophelia in those very real experiences of being discounted and overlooked and believes it's something many audience members will relate to.
Pfeiffer believes any performers who feels boxed in can relate, as well. “People are looking at you like, ‘Can you do this?’ and I’m just like, ‘Yes, every single person on Broadway.’ People are more than capable. They're just not given the chance, the confidence, or the support to embody being another kind of performer,” Pfeiffer asserts passionately.
And that was part of the reason, for a time, Ophelia hadn’t been on her bucket list. “I had totally bought into that idea. And I didn’t think that I was in the caliber of actor to be doing Free Shakespeare in the Park.”
Though she trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, it still came as quite the shock to the 28-year-old Pfeiffer when Hamlet’s director Leon asked her to audition for the part after seeing Pfeiffer in Almost Famous. Shifting that mindset of what kind of artist she is post-pandemic has been an ongoing process for her. She shares, “I'm not gonna say no to myself. I'm not gonna count myself out of anything.”
Upon being cast, Pfeiffer really began to reflect on Ophelia and realized that she’s “kind of the blueprint for every role” the actor has played in the last few years. “I know a tragic Act Two really well,” Pfeiffer jokes. (In addition to playing Penny Lane on the Main Stem, Pfeiffer starred as Eliza in the first national tour of Hamilton, Eva Perón in New York City Center’s Evita, and Maria in West Side Story at the Hollywood Bowl.)
And because Ophelia, “like many other roles, does not even come close to passing the Bechdel Test,” it led Pfeiffer to find much of Ophelia’s story off the page. To fill in the gaps, Pfeiffer is pulling upon some personal experiences. “I had a family member who took her own life,” she shares. “I think about it every night as I listen to ‘To be or not to be.’ And I wonder if my family member had the same thoughts.”
Pfeiffer is also finding a way into Ophelia’s grief through Leon’s vision to set Hamlet in 2021 as the world continues to struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic. “Ophelia in 2021 represents the grief that we collectively did not get to express or heal from. A million people died! And then all of a sudden, we were back at work,” she says. “Ophelia to me is, ‘No, you are going to look at me, and you are going to understand my grief.’”
Pfeiffer argues that Ophelia isn’t crazy like the world around her believes. Ophelia is hurt. She’s been told to break up with the man she loves who later murders her father, and her brother is abroad which leaves her alone. She’s reacting to the horrifying things that are happening instead of ignoring them. And there’s a direct correlation for Pfeiffer to how we as a society are moving forward without fully grieving people and the last few years: “Nothing is the same, no one is the same.” And as she points out, that’s something the theatre world knows intimately.
While Pfeiffer is pulling from many emotionally heavy places to craft a deeply considered portrayal of Ophelia, she’s also approaching the process as a spiritual one. “I think we're seeing society in general suffering from an inability to heal. It really is ‘the poison of unexpressed grief’, and that needs to be felt to be healed,” she says while quoting the play. She hopes Hamlet provides the people who come to see it with a bit of catharsis. “And, hopefully they feel seen."
Like her wish for Ophelia to be heard, Pfeiffer wants people will sit up and listen to what she has to say, too. “When it comes to all these conversations about diversity and inclusivity, that work isn’t just saying the land acknowledgement on day one. That work is interpersonal,” she says. And it’s a responsibility that Pfeiffer is charging everyone who works in Broadway with. She admits that she has “a way easier time moving through this business than a lot of people,” but she works to practice what she preaches.
As the actor explains, there’s so much left to be done to make Broadway truly equitable. “There are people whose voices are not being heard in certain spaces, and that is the responsibility of everybody within a cast, within an ecosystem," she asserts, before continuing, “It’s a community thing. It’s not activism with a capital A. Within the communities that you’re in, the voices next to you matter, and they need to be heard. People have valid things to say, especially female-identifying people, non-binary people, people who the intersection of their identities don’t match up with the idea of a person whose perspective matters. Their perspectives matter.”