Arts·Emancipation Day

Watch Amaka Umeh — the first Black woman to play Hamlet at Stratford — perform its most iconic scene

The theatre production was forced to close its curtains, but Umeh is giving us a glimpse of her Hamlet in a haunting performance from an empty stage

The theatre production was forced to close its curtains, but Umeh is giving us a glimpse of her Hamlet

Watch Amaka Umeh — the first Black woman to play Hamlet at Stratford — perform its most iconic scene

1 year ago
4:05
The theatre production was forced to close its curtains, but Umeh is giving us a glimpse of her Hamlet in a haunting performance from an empty stage. 4:05

On August 1st, on stages across Ontario and Quebec, Black Canadian artists expressed what freedom means to them through music, poetry, performance and dance as part of FreeUp! Emancipation Day 2020, a program marking Emancipation Day, the day that slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire on August 1st, 1834.

Hamlet is one of the, if not the, most-performed plays in the world. It is said that Shakespeare's epic story of revenge is performed somewhere on earth every minute of every day. But that was before COVID-19 hit, and theatres around the world were forced to close their doors.

Performer Amaka Umeh was preparing to take on the eponymous role at this year's Stratford Festival and make history as the first Black woman to play the part at Stratford. Umeh won a Dora Award in 2019 for her performance in the Howland Company and Crow's Theatre production of The Wolves, and not being able to see her interpretation of Shakespeare's melancholy Prince of Denmark is a huge loss for theatre audiences.

But luckily for online audiences, Umeh is giving us a glimpse of her Hamlet. In celebration of Emancipation Day on August 1st — the day that slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire in 1834 — Umeh returned to the Festival Stage at Stratford for a very special performance that she shared as part of the livestream special FreeUp! Emancipation Day 2020.

Amaka Umeh. (CBC Arts)

In this video, Umeh performs Hamlet's iconic soliloquy that begins with the most famous line in the history of theatre: "to be or not to be." Acting on the stage with no audience, her performance is haunting and imbued with even more meaning.

"This piece for me carries a lot of new weight and is a work in progress," says Umeh. "I hope the audience sees that. I hope they see works in progress reflected in themselves. I would like the audience to feel free to be wherever they are in their journey."

Reflecting on Emancipation Day, she says, "I think it's important to celebrate and acknowledge Emancipation Day because it's part of our history. I believe that we are enriched when we acknowledge both the easy and the hard parts of our collective history and see how they are intertwined to bring us where we are in [the] present day."

Amaka Umeh. (CBC Arts)

Watch Amaka Umeh's performance in the video above and stream the full special now on CBC Gem or YouTube.

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