Associate professor’s role in Shakespeare In the Park production of King Lear is a hometown honor

Associate professor Jacqueline Thompson performs in the Shakespeare In The Park production of King Lear.

Associate Professor Jacqueline Thompson performs in the Shakespeare In The Park production of “King Lear.” (Photo courtesy of Jacqueline Thompson)

Portraying Regan in this year’s Shakespeare In The Park production of “King Lear” is an honor for University of Missouri–St. Louis Associate Professor Jacqueline Thompson in so many ways.

It gives the professional actor a chance to work with top rated thespians such as Tony- and Grammy-award winning Broadway actor Andre DeShields. It exposes audiences to an all Black cast for the first time in a St. Louis Shakespeare Festival production. And it confirms that great art can happen right here in St. Louis.

“So many actors want to get to New York and they want to get to LA, and that’s great,” said Thompson. “But it’s also a testament when you do your work in your own city, in your own community, some of those experiences and people that you want to connect with can actually be in your backyard.”

As an actor and director, Thompson has been part of the local theater scene for more than 20 years. The St. Louis native has been teaching and directing UMSL theater and communication students since 2012 and is a member of the Department of Communication and Media. In addition to performing with several theater companies, including the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, The Black Rep and the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival, Thompson was recognized in March 2018 as one of six women shaping St. Louis Arts and entertainment by the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

With performances at Forest Park until June 27, the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival production of “King Lear” features DeShields, who won a 2019 Tony and 2020 Grammy for his performance in the Broadway musical “Hadestown,” in the title role. Thompson said that she hopes that bringing in well-established actors such as DeShields will showcase the capabilities of local artists.

“We’re in an ensemble with this legend and on a trajectory to perfect our craft while we are playing with him and how great it is to be able to say that every night,” she said. “And if it takes bringing someone in like that to also highlight what we have here, that’s great.

“I fight hard for St. Louis artists, local artists to be able to work in their own towns because so much of what professional theater has become in regional theater is a lot of times they bring in people from New York or Chicago. Hey, great, I get it if you can’t fill the role, but there’s so many talented, amazing people here that have been trained and have had enough experience to be able to do an equally great job.”

Thompson said many people aren’t aware of the hard work and preparation that is put into an acting role, especially in a Shakespearean production. She said she had to read and re-read the play, study the language, work with a text coach, watch movies and videos for background and put time and energy into understanding the psychology of the middle-child of a mad king. Then there’s remembering all the lines and the hours and weeks of rehearsal time.

“I wish more people understood the time, the mental pressure, the physical pressure, the endurance, the sacrifice,” Thompson said. “When you’re in rehearsal, when you’re performing every night, you’re missing out on a lot of life. We have six shows a week and long hours.”

Thompson said that getting involved in her first production since the pandemic began caused even more complications. The actor’s union required that the production company test cast members weekly for COVID, and rehearsals had to be held outdoors.

“Just being back in space with people was really weird,” she said. “Things I’d never thought about before as an actor – touching my partner’s hand or standing close to somebody – it was challenging. I’ve been extra careful to just give myself and give my other cast members a lot of grace and space as we work through this new normal.”

Having an all Black cast in a Shakespeare play is another new normal in what is now the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s 24th year.

“I don’t think I would have gotten cast in the role that I’m in now,” Thompson said of the intentional casting. “Artist are advocating for a shift in American theater, and there’s been so many struggles and fights about what truly inclusive and equitable casting looks like.”

With this production of King Lear, Thompson is excited about the next generation of St. Louisans having a chance to see characters in a Shakespeare play who look like them.

“I’m super honored to be able to be in the cast and to make this type of theater accessible to all audiences,” Thompson said. “The cool thing is, I get to do this where I grew up, in a space where I didn’t see that except for the Black Rep. This lets me know that I’m aligned with my purpose and that I’m actively doing what I’ve been called to do. For that, I’m grateful.”

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