‘Sonnet Man’ turns Shakespeare’s rhymes into rap

Devon Glover, aka Sonnet Man, performs Shakespeare’s sonnets and soliloquies verbatim, set to hip-hop music, and then translates those words into our modern language. (Photo: Mark Williamson/Stratford Herald)



How does a guy growing up in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn with limited resources become a globe-trotting performer? Determination and Shakespeare, of course. 

Devon Glover (a.k.a. The Sonnet Man) was rapping when he was still at the Boys and Girls High School in the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood. Glover was good at math, and with the help of the principal at Boys and Girls, was able to get into Ithaca College in upstate New York on a scholarship to study computer science. 

But Devon kept on rapping, partially to make ends meet. He appeared on Ithaca College’s student-run television station, on the radio, for the football team, and in clubs in and around Ithaca. 

The town itself was fairly liberal about racial issues, but the campus (with African-Americans totaling only 3% of the student body) was less lenient. In response, an ever-positive Glover turned to teaching children, both in public schools and privately. He found his niche, changed his major to math education, and being in the classroom is still one of his favorite places to be. 

But fate would call on him serendipitously when he was back in Brooklyn. It was a woman: Melissa Guttman. 

Guttman worked with Arje Shaw, a Broadway producer and director best known for “The Gathering.” Shaw had a pet project of setting Shakespeare’s sonnets to music, and had tried using jazz, but wasn’t satisfied with the results. Enter Devon. The three worked closely together in the studio and Sonnet Man was born. 

Since those early days, Glover has been working steadily. He was featured on “The Today Show,” MSNBC, BBC and NPR, and at Shakespeare Festivals all over the world. His debut video, “Hip-Hop Hamlet,” was selected for the Shakespeare Short Film Festival in Stratford-upon-Avon. Then there was the Sonnet Marathon, where Glover rapped all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets in succession, in the United States, United Kingdom, and Morocco, as part of Shakespeare’s 450th birthday celebrations. 

Glover has other exciting projects in the wings. He will be writing a screenplay about the Briggs vs. Elliot Supreme Court case (the first of five cases that collectively became known as Brown v. Board of Education) that challenged segregation of public schools in South Carolina. He will also be working on a rap version of Romeo and Juliet, as well as a children’s book. 

Glover appeared on the Southern Shakespeare Festival stage in 2015 and 2016, and continues to teach intensives in Leon County Schools. He is also a Guest Artist teaching at the Thomasville Center for the Arts. In addition, he will be playing Touchstone in this year’s production of “As You Like It,” and will read the winning sonnets during the Sonnet Contest presentation on Saturday, May 13. 

What: Southern Shakespeare Festival presents “As You Like It” 
When: 8 p.m. Friday, May 12, and Saturday, May 13; 7 p.m. on Sunday, May 14
Where: Capital City Amphitheater/Cascades Park, 1001 South Gadsden Street
Cost: Free 

Terry Wells relishes playing two roles in ‘As You Like It’

Terry Wells playing Freud in “Freud’s Last Session: in Orlando. Wells has two roles in the Southern Shakespeare production of “As You Like it.” Photo: Courtesy of Terry Wells)


Amanda Sieradzki, Council on Culture & Arts

The third time’s the charm for actor Terry Wells, whose appearance in the Southern Shakespeare Company’s production of “As You Like It” will be his third time performing in the play over the length of his career. During this May’s Southern Shakespeare Festival in Cascades Park, Wells will appear as two characters, Duke Frederick and Duke Senior. Both differ greatly from his previous roles in the comedy — his first time as Adam at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in the late ’90s, and the second time as Jacques during one of his final performances in Toronto before returning to Tallahassee. 

As an actor, Wells has been delighted to work with many talented directors, and considers Canadian director Rod Cebellos to be a prominent mentor as he cast Wells in many diverse and challenging roles. With every project and play, Wells appreciates traversing different worlds, and the customs, dynamics and behaviors of each character he’s given the chance to embody. Wells has been particularly drawn to classics, the language of the bard both striking and enticing him. His favorite roles in Shakespeare have included Jacques from “As You Like It,” Feste in “Twelfth Night,” and Lavatch in “All’s Well That Ends Well.”  

“Levatch was just a sweet guy to play, and Jacques was such a philosophical, melancholy, and strange kind of guy,” said Wells. “Feste was really fun because he had some great songs that I got to sing, which I don’t normally do. I was also given the opportunity to go nuts with the pranks his character pulls, and I enjoyed exploring that side of my personality.” 

No matter the play or role, Wells always appreciates a challenge. He found just that in two recent shows, playing Sigmund Freud in “Freud’s Last Session” and performing in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” with a Sarasota theater troupe. Both plays discussed and brought to light everything from faith and prejudice to good and evil. 

“I like to work on something with some meat to it,” says Wells. “I love things that are well written with complex language too which is why I’m inspired by the chance to do something from the classics. These texts have survived 400 years and will possibly be around another 400 years or more.” 

Tallahassee is Wells’ childhood stomping ground and where his passion for the theater was cultivated. An active thespian in Leon High School’s theater group and musicals, he graduated from Florida State University’s theater program during Dr. Richard Fallon’s tenure. His English teacher, Ms. Clear, at Raa Middle School, first stoked his interest in theater during their readings of the classics, and Wells was thrust onstage in a myriad of roles by mentor Ray Kickliter, Leon High School’s former choral and musical director. 

Post-graduation, Wells attended the University of Alabama for his MFA and spent the subsequent years traveling and performing as an Equity actor throughout the country. He returned to his hometown just shy of a decade ago and continues to be inspired by the city’s flourishing arts scene. He’s excited to be participating and preparing with the Southern Shakespeare Company and says the secret to working with a centuries-old text like “As You Like It” can be summed up in two strategies. 

“You have to understand every word that the character says,” states Wells. “I worked with a director once whose advice was to sit down with your script and the Oxford English dictionary and look up every word that you say, especially what the word meant at that time because meanings of words change. The other is to study the verse and the rhythm of it and make sure that you’re speaking it properly and figure out how your character is relating to other people.” 

For his upcoming roles as dueling dukes, he is practicing differentiating their delivery — many changes are as subtle as the way they walk versus the rhythms in which they speak. Wells is also looking forward to the company’s unique take on the play which will set the work in 1920s Chicago and feature original music by local Tallahassee musician Steve Hodges. In addition to the colorful flapper-inspired costumes, Wells says audiences can look forward to “a spectacle of music and dance” reminiscent of that era, including the Charleston, as well as the tomfoolery and mischief that is so markedly Shakespeare. 

“It’s a fun show,” smiles Wells. “There’s a long segment of courting and misconceptions of who people are that is very funny as Celia and Rosalind decide that one of them will be disguised as a boy so they’ll be safer wandering around the Forest of Arden. There are lots of puns and wordplay off of that.” 

Ultimately, Wells believes Shakespeare’s staying power in the cultural lexicon is a direct result of its truth-telling of human nature despite modernization or changes in circumstances or settings. While getting over the language may be the most readily apparent hurdle for some audiences, Wells says that attendees should trust their instincts and allow the actors to get them over the gaps they may not know. 

“The real reward is when you are totally in that moment, and you lose most of your awareness of the audience, the lights, and the sound, and are focused on the other people onstage with you,” says Wells. “That’s a rare gift and when that happens it’s wonderful…it becomes crystal in your mind.”

In fact, the most satisfying aspect of acting for Wells is when all of the above comes together — letting go of any insecurities or doubts, he relies on the talent and support of his cast mates to create something larger than themselves on the stage, and command the audience through an experience like no other, always in search of those moments of “aliveness.” 

“If you go back and you read plays from that period by other playwrights, you’ll see the characters are not as alive as Shakespeare’s were,” says Wells. “Can you think of any better depiction of young, crazy, obsessive love than in Romeo and Juliet? I think they give us such a picture of what human life is like.”

Amanda Sieradzki is the feature writer for the Council on Culture & Arts. COCA is the capital area’s umbrella agency for arts and culture (www.tallahasseearts.org).

What: Southern Shakespeare Festival presents “As You Like It” 
When: 8 p.m. Friday, May 12, and Saturday, May 13; 7 p.m. on Sunday, May 14
Where: Capital City Amphitheater/Cascades Park, 1001 South Gadsden Street
Cost: Free 

The Bard abides: Shakespeare does the Charleston

Marina Brown, Democrat correspondent

Josh Weinstein practices his dance steps for the “As You Like It” performance scheduled for the Southern Shakespeare Festival at Cascades Park on May 12-14 2017.
(Photo: Joe Rondone/Democrat)

Never think that the place you live, the place with the squabbling politicians and the challenged airport, is a Southern backwater without enough culture to go around. Don’t ever think that the steamy nights and sizzling days and more spring pollen than a nose can hold are enough to keep creative juices from bubbling to the surface. And bubbling with enough local talent to make an extraordinary stew.

Amidst grassroots musicians, blues singers, classical concerts and choirs, dance companies, songwriters, numerous acting groups, and rockers, ethnic groups, gospel choirs, poets, choreographers, symphony orchestras, and dozens of solo performers it sometimes is just darned hard to choose where to spend your cultural hours. But here’s an idea:

Why not drop in for a night of a little bit of everything? The Southern Shakespeare Festival, May 12-14, in the serenely beautiful venue of the Capital City Amphitheater stage in Cascades Park offers up “As You Like It”, Shakespeare’s convoluted farce, so dizzy you may think Shakespeare had a little ‘borscht-belt’ shtick in mind.

In this production, set in late 1920s Chicago, rather than dirty old England, boys and girls get together, get mixed up, switch clothes, trick each other, and dance the Charleston into the wee hours. Shakespeare’s poetic language suddenly becomes understandable as the action leads the way. And an added bonus is that the audience hears for the first time, original music played and sung to lyrics by the bard himself. (Shakespeare was an aspiring Sondheim? Who knew!)

Artistic Director Lanny Thomas stands in front of performers as they practice for their rendition of ‘As You Like it’, scheduled for the Southern Shakespeare Festival at Cascades Park on May 12-14 2017. (Photo: Joe Rondone/Democrat)

Artistic Director of the Southern Shakespeare Festival, Lanny Thomas, says that it was “funny how the playwright’s words are elastic…and often fit right into 1920’s speak.” Director Thomas has taken the action from downtown Chicago, the hangout of tough characters like wrestlers and bootleggers, to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where, in a forest, the monkey business really gets going.

Thomas, himself, is a true theater professional with degrees from Case Western Reserve, American University, and the California Institute of the Arts. He is also an actor who, among many other roles, played Romeo in the D.C. Shakespeare Festival and at the Sylvan Theatre in Washington. He has founded theater companies, directed dozens of plays, chaired boards at the Tallahassee Little Theatre, and is a founding member of the Irish Repertory Theatre. And he loves Shakespeare. He also knows that contemporary audiences respond best to the Bard when the setting is relatable. That is how the 1920s became the locus for the high jinx of “As You Like It.”

Thomas also knew that “music makes the world go around.”Enter, Stephen Hodges, Longineu Parsons, Heather Paudler, Longineu Parsons III, and Brian Hall — each musician a stand-out in their profession.

“It was a little daunting to be asked by Lanny to ‘go compose some music for Shakespeare’s lyrics’, says Hodges. “I’d say I bring a refreshing lack of complication to the task,” he jokes. Stephen Hodges may be a city planner by day, but his fervent avocation is musician — guitar, banjo, mandolin are his favorites. Hodges, who played in professional bands for years, has written original music for four songs in “As You Like It” and has adapted well-known ’20s tunes for the five-piece onstage group.

Best known of the group is Longineu Parsons, a professor at FSU and hailed as “one of the world’s finest trumpet players.” In demand on six continents, Parsons has performed for royalty, recorded with Cab Calloway and Nat Adderley, and performed with international jazz and symphonic ensembles.

Sitting nearby on stage right, and dressed as the other musicians, in period costumes will be Parsons’ son, Longineu Parsons III, a sought-after drummer who performed with Yellowcard and numerous other ensembles.

And bringing the mellowness of strings is Heather Paudler, an ethnomusicologist by training and Professor of Humanities at TCC. She plays dozens of instruments but will offer up her viola riffs in the likes of Sweet Georgia Brown and the St. James Infirmary Blues. On bass is Brian Hall, on the faculty of FAMU where he teaches jazz and performs with the FAMU Jazz Ensemble and his own Cuarteto del Sur.

Stephen Hodges, from left, Heather Paudler and Jake Armstrong collectively with three other artists make the Sheiks of Tallahassee, who will perform the music for their rendition of ‘As You Like it’, scheduled for the Southern Shakespeare Festival at Cascades Park on May 12-14 2017. (Photo: Joe Rondone/Democrat)

Hodges says that coming up with original music that works with the special cadences of Shakespeare’s words wasn’t easy. “I listened again and again to the words, said them out loud, and began to feel the rhythms and patterns inside. Then I introduced a few chords, got a feel for the key, and found the verse, verse, bridge, verse that would make up what might be called a “jazz lead sheet” — the pattern jazz musicians use when they improvise but have a structure to go back to.” Hodges says that’s one reason he chose the musicians who will actually take part. “I selected them for their jazz knowledge… and yes, I expect them to improvise on stage too.”

But the audience will be expected to add a little of their own energy. Director Lanny Thomas says that the Charleston is something the viewers will want to get used to. “Occasionally a train comes through at Cascades Park. You have to just ‘go with it’, ‘cause you sure can’t be heard over it.” That’s when the musicians will break into the Charleston, the ‘train music’, to make the moment fun.” But that’s not its only purpose. Democrat Insiders will be invited to two classes of Charleston conducted by choreographer, Idy Codington. The audience “showcase” will come at the end of As You Like It when Insiders will be invited on stage to wiggle their bums, cross their knees, and waggle a finger in the air. 
Who says you can’t have it all in Tallahassee? A good play. Great verse. Get-down dancing. And some of the best jazz you’re likely to hear. And all on a spring night beneath the stars.

Contact Marina Brown at mcdb100@comcast.net
If You Go
May 12: 6-10 p.m. (play begins at 8 p.m.)
May 13: 5-10 p.m. (play begins at 8 p.m.)
May 14: 4-9 p.m. (play begins at 7 p.m.)

Southernshakepearefestival.org/ and shakespeare-program-schedule-2017/ for a breakdown of the many theatrical performances on each of the festival days and for tickets. Theater With a Mission, Quincy Music Theatre, a Sonnet Contest, Thomasville Center for the Arts, The Bardlings, and Leon High actors in addition to Charleston lessons for Democrat Insiders on Saturday will be held in the several hours before As You Like It begins!


Gem Collection Raffle

Here is your chance to win some stunning 1920s-inspired jewelry from Tallahassee’s Gem Collection.

Each donation (suggested amount $10) provides automatic entry into the raffle!


Set 1 – Total retail value of $364
Set 2 – Total retail value of $350

14K Gold filled SS pearl earrings

14K Gold filled Oxidized Pear Station 24″ Necklace

14K Gold filled Labradorite earrings

14K Gold filled Labradorite 36″ Necklace


Simply click the donate button below for a chance to win! All donations go directly to support FREE Shakespeare at Cascades Park!  

DRAWING WILL TAKE PLACE SUNDAY, MAY 14TH (between 6:30pm and 6:45pm) at Cascades Park.

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