Creating the illusion of water in Folger Theatre’s all-Black ‘Metamorphoses’

Director Psalmayene 24 and choreographer Tony Thomas share how they staged Mary Zimmerman’s award-winning adaptation of ancient myths.

The first time I heard that the Folger Theatre’s production of Metamorphoses would be done without a pool on the stage, I thought it was a joke.

After all, Mary Zimmerman’s stage adaptation—which won Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle Awards when it opened on Broadway in 2002—has always centered on a large pool in which the actors, portraying heroes of Greco-Roman mythology, are fatefully immersed.

Narcissus (Gerrad Alex Taylor) accepts a flower from the Water Nymph (Miss Kitty) in Folger Theatre’s staging of Mary Zimmerman’s ‘Metamorphoses.’ Photo by Brittany Diliberto.

In fact, according to Zimmerman, the play never existed without the idea of water.

So how come the Folger’s dry rendition?

I turned to Karen Ann Daniels, artistic director of the Folger Theatre, for the answer. “We wanted to reimagine Metamorphoses within the context of our own transformation,” she emailed in reply, describing the recent massive renovation of the 92-year-old building.

“It would have been very difficult to incorporate a pool into the set,” she explained, pointing out that underneath the historic stage lie the less historic, and decidedly less glamorous, electrical and HVAC systems on which the entire building depends.

“It’s a win-win situation,” she added. “Necessity has bred creativity. It’s an opportunity for us to reimagine the story for our own time and place.”

For Psalmayene 24, the much-vaunted playwright and director whose work has dominated the DC scene over the last few years, it was an artistic challenge.

As director of Metamorphoses—a play he knew well from working at Arena Stage when it was mounted there in 2013—he was excited by the prospect. “Since Metamorphoses is typically done with a pool, mounting the production without one allowed us to give the play a totally new interpretation. It was exhilarating,” he recalled as we chatted in a Zoom interview during the final days of rehearsals.

The question for Psalm, as he likes to be called (his real name is Gregory Morrison), was how—without the pool—would the Folger production manage to express the metaphor of water?

“After all,” he recollected, “water is one of the greatest metaphors for change. That is because it’s inherently transformative, routinely shifting from liquid to solid or steam. It’s magic.”

The answer—not surprising for someone who began his career as a dancer and choreographer—was to use movement instead.

“We turned the play into a choreo-drama, using movement to suggest the flow of water. That brings the story to life in a kinetically creative way,” said Psalm.

‘Metamorphoses’ director Psalmayene 24 and choreographer Tony Thomas. Photos courtesy of Folger Theatre.

And kinetic it is, according to its choreographer, Tony Thomas, who has infused the play with a level of movement that simply bristles with energy.

Psalm and Tony have worked together since 2015, and both are deeply committed to the use of movement onstage. The format used in Metamorphoses—combining choreography and acting into a single entity—is the same technique used by the two men in Word Becomes Flesh, a 2017 Theater Alliance production that swept the Helen Hayes Awards in 2017.

“In theater, the two disciplines used to be distinct, but today they are often combined. Each one heightens the effect of the other,” Tony told me in a subsequent interview on Zoom.

“In Metamorphoses,” he continued, “the water is a metaphor for change. It’s a form of baptism.”

In order to make the metaphor more visible, the team decided to turn the concept of water into a character, called Water Nymph, who dances and assists in the transformations that occur. The role is played by Miss Kitty, seen just a few months ago in Agreste at Spooky Action Theater.

“She’s a wonderful performer,” Tony said, describing her as “beautifully present throughout the production, so much so that she’s almost part of the set.” And while there is no actual water, she represents the element of water.

“She and the other characters create the illusion of water,” he added. “They dance, they wade, they sway, they splash. They cleanse.”

Most of all, he added, they demonstrate the way in which choreography can be used to create illusions. In this Metamorphoses, the characters literally dance their way through the vignettes of change. They celebrate resurrection or rebirth.

“Think of this as a remix of Metamorphoses,” Psalm said about the play, which was adapted for Folger with the playwright’s permission. “We’ve put our own spin onto the show.”

One big difference in this production is that it boasts an all-Black ensemble. In fact, it is the first such production in Folger history.

The decision was not taken lightly. In fact, Psalm conceded, he wasn’t at all keen on the idea at first. He needed to know why a play recreating Greek and Roman mythology had to be performed by an all-Black cast.

The cast of Mary Zimmerman’s ‘Metamorphoses,’ on stage at Folger Theatre. Photo by Brittany Diliberto.

The answer came abruptly, with the murder of Tyre Nichols, who was killed by Memphis police officers on January 7, 2023. The play was then in its planning stage.

“That’s when I knew we had to do it with an all-Black cast,” he said. “On the surface, Tyre was just one of many Black men and women who were murdered by those paid to protect them.

“But I felt some sort of inexplicably strong connection to Tyre.

“He was a skateboarder, a photographer who enjoyed shooting sunsets, a father. He represented a type of Blackness that I connect with.

“When Tyre Nichols was killed, I fell into a pit of grief that I had to work my way out of. This play has been a ladder, allowing me to climb out of that pit of sorrow.”

For Psalm and the rest of the creative team, this production celebrates the creativity of the African Diaspora. It celebrates Black humanity.

However, he added, on a more somber note, “Black humanity is still under attack in America. We need as many ways as possible to deal with and stop that attack. Reinforcing the link between mythology and Black humanity is a first step.”

For Tony Thomas, the choreographer, the decision was simpler. Having an all-Black cast was a way to provide a Black perspective on change, and to show how that change has evolved throughout time and history.

Other aspects of Black ethnicity in the show are revealed in the costumes (by Mika Eubanks), which incorporate elements from the African continent.

The music (by composer and sound designer Nick Hernandez) combines elements of African musical genres as well as funk, hip-hop, and rock. It’s a cornucopia of sound that originated in Africa.

Metamorphoses contains some stunning images,” said Tony. “The actors build on their spoken words and express language through their bodies. They create objects out of thin air, such as a ladder out of two people. Or a table out of one.”

In another example of movement-created drama, the Water Nymph (Miss Kitty), symbolizes the Middle Passage. “She replicates the turbulent voyage from Black Africa to Black America, making it clear that she and others in the ensemble are in fact Black bodies telling—and dancing—the story. They illustrate the fact that we all come from the same source, but we’re all different.”

I turned back to Psalm for a final word.

“It’s hard not to be moved,” he said. “The myths, one by one, tap into the elemental parts of who and what we are. Love, greed, compassion, animosity, beauty, redemption, and everything else—it’s all there in this marvelous play.”

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Metamorphoses plays through June 16, 2024, at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre, 201 E Capitol Street SE, Washington, DC. To purchase tickets ($20–$84, with many discounts available), go online or call the Box Office at (202) 544-7077.

To see credits for the cast and creative team, click here.

COVID Safety: While Folger audiences and employees are no longer required to wear masks at most events, masks are welcome and remain an important preventive measure against COVID-19. Anyone needing or choosing to wear one is encouraged to do so. Masks are required at the performances on Saturday, June 8, at 2 pm and 8 pm.

Special Events

Thursday, May 16—Black Out Night
Join the cast and creative team for a lively social hour before the show begins, then enjoy the show at a special price. Use the BLACKOUT code and click here to reserve your spot.

Thursday, May 30—Meet the Cast
After the 7:30 pm show there will be a free discussion with the cast, moderated by production dramaturg Faedra Chatard Carpenter.

SEE ALSO: Click here for DC Theater Arts’ feature on the role of movement in Tempestuous Elements, produced recently at Arena Stage.

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