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Dolphins & Sharks (Director’s Interview) Dolphins & Sharks (Director’s Interview)
Dolphins & Sharks (Director’s Interview)

The UK premiere of Dolphins and Sharks now playing at the Finborough Theatre, Chelsea is about four close friends Isabel, Danilo, Yusuf and Xiomara who work in a copy shop in downtown Harlem. However, when a rare chance for promotion arises, their friendship is put to the test in surprising and unexpected ways. Loyalties are soon tested, power games, petty jealousies, personal interests and differing views on race, equality etc. begin to surface and threaten their hard won harmony.


Ebonyonline.net caught up with play director Lydia Parker to talk, race, friendships, Obama, gentrification, what makes good theatre and more. Read review here.


EOL: What attracted to take on the role of director for this production?

LP: I am not only directing but also producing the play with my company Over Here Theatre Company, which I founded to produce exciting, relevant and important American plays. Dolphins and Sharks deals with difficult issues which are not often discussed in theatre. James Anthony Tyler, the playwright, has a unique voice and writes believable characters with dialogue which just leaps off the page. I read this play and thought “I know who these people are”.


EOL: The play touched on many issues, but it seemed to focused on the divide between Africans and Black Americans and skin colour, why was that?

LP: The divide within the black community is a major issue in the play and James had a lot of courage writing about it.  It’s not a subject that is often discussed but it exists all over the world, of course, not just in America.


In this play, Isabel who is African-American , feels looked down upon by Xiomara who is mixed-race Latina from the Dominican Republic. They both feel looked down on by middle class, well- educated, Nigerian-American Yusuf.


Of course there are divides within any community, no one can lump together all white or Asian people either, and it’s ridiculous to do so. The difference is that in America there is a legacy of slavery and James’ point, I believe, is that viewed from the white American perspective, all of these characters are just “black” .


The message is that the black community should stick together despite their differences instead of turning on each other; this is the only way to fight the oppression which clearly still exists in America.


EOL: What were some of the things you learnt about colour and racism in America from directing this play?

LP: Growing up in New York, I had friends from all backgrounds and I remember being surprised when one of my best friends, an African-American guy said he couldn’t walk through a subway car without people feeling threatened and clutching their handbags.


New York is supposed to be a big “melting pot” but unlike London, neighbourhoods have always been very divided by race and nationality: Irish, Italian, Korean, Chinese, black, Latino etc.


I think it is changing, thank God, and I really believe Obama had a lot to do with people finding their similarities rather than their differences. Having a mixed race president brought people together in a way that had never been seen before all over the country. Unfortunately there is a massive conservative, racist backlash now with Trump as president which is just scary.


EOL: There’s a lot of tension between the characters throughout the play, how were you able to maintain this?

LP: It was a difficult rehearsal process as this play brings up thorny issues which can really hit home. We had many long discussions about the characters and their relationships to each other.


As a white director, it was sometimes tough to push the subject of racism between characters onto my cast, but the tension comes also from other things: for Yusuf it’s about class, for Xiomara and Isabel, there is a betrayal of friendship as there is with Xiomara and Danilo.


The actors all formed a very close bond though and really trust each other which helps. This is without a doubt the most challenging play I’ve ever directed!


EOL: As a director, give us an idea of the process of bringing someone’s writing to life?

LP: I always read the play many times and think carefully about casting. Once you have the right actors in the role, half your work is done.


I directed a reading of Dolphins and Sharks at the Finborough last October and used four of the same actors, Shyko Amos as Isabel, Rachel Handshaw as Xiomara, Hermeilio Miguel Aquino as Danilo and Miquel Brown as Amenze Amen.


We brought in Ammar Duffus as Yusuf later on. Rachel and Miquel are both originally American and Hermeilio is actually Dominican-American, so a real find.  Shyko is British but has spent a lot of time in New York, taking on American roles in plays, so she was an honorary American for me. Ammar has never lived in the States, so the fact that he took on the character of Yusuf in just three weeks is impressive.


I like to spend a while in rehearsal seeing what the actors have to offer, I don’t go in with ideas set in stone. Rehearsal is a development process where you have to guide the actors into becoming these characters rather than impose something on them. We only had three short weeks to rehearse the play,


I would have liked to take even more time to really explore it, but the actors have done a superb job in the limited time to bring these characters to life.


I also had such a great design team behind me: Anna Driftmier, the set designer, had brilliant ideas from the start on how to bring a Harlem copy shop onto the tiny stage of the Finborough.


EOL: What in your opinion makes good theatre?

LP: Good theatre should be entertaining but also challenge you and provoke discussion; it should give you an emotional reaction or even disturb you. I think Dolphins and Sharks does all of those. It’s a very funny comedy but also hits you in the gut.


EOL: Was there someone or something that inspired you to get into theatre? 

LP: I started out as an actor and I’ve also written plays as well as directing. For me it’s all about telling a good story to a live audience, no matter what my role is in the production. I come from a very large family and at the age of ten I was directing my five siblings in plays


I had written! I was lucky enough to be going to Broadway plays from the age of twelve and it was a magical experience. Theatre is a special art form because no two performances will ever be exactly the same and the audience reaction will always be different which will affect that performance.


There is nothing quite like the excitement of live theatre and working in a small theatre like the Finborough is even more challenging as the audience is right on top of you.


EOL: Do you have any projects in the pipeline?

LP: I am pondering a move to Birmingham where my husband is working, so I want to check out the theatre scene up there. It’s an easy commute to London so I can keep my life going here.


EOL: Finally, what advice would you give to young director starting out?

LP: I think anyone starting out in directing should take some acting classes to get the actors’ perspective, it’s invaluable. I would also say just keep doing your own thing, find a space, do a play, do another play, and learn from experience.


It is useful to learn directing techniques and how to run a rehearsal in classes, but there is no replacement to doing it. Directors should go to see as much theatre as possible and pay attention to what works and what doesn’t.


It is a tough career, there is no money, you have to love theatre passionately, and be prepared to take chances. But when it works, it’s a great feeling.


Dolphins and Sharks plays at the Finborough Theatre, 12-30 Sept. Visit http://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk/ for tickets and details.  Click here to read review.

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