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Black Theater Artists Are Helping Shakespeare Speak To More Diverse Audiences

John Douglas Thompson portrays the magician Prospero in a Commonwealth Shakespeare Company production of <em>The Tempest</em> in Boston this month.
John Douglas Thompson portrays the magician Prospero in a Commonwealth Shakespeare Company production of <em>The Tempest</em> in Boston this month.

Thousands of people will lay down blankets this week and watch Commonwealth Shakespeare Company's annual production in Boston Common, the heart of the city's sacred civic space.

This year's selection, following a year off because of the pandemic, is The Tempest. The production stars John Douglas Thompson as Prospero, a powerful magician ruling over a tiny island.

Thompson, 57, didn't take to the stage until his late 20s, but then quickly built a reputation as one of the greatest stage actors now working. He's earned a Tony Award nomination for his work in August Wilson's Jitney, and has been showered with accolades for his interpretations of many Shakespeare roles.

His success in classical theater stands out in an environment where Shakespeare is more often a tale told by a white man. Some scholars and theater artists argue that Shakespeare, Inc. — how the Bard is read, studied and performed — is in need of a racial reckoning.

"There is still the pervasive understanding of Shakespeare as implicitly white," said Patricia Akhimie, a Black Shakespeare scholar who teaches at Rutgers University. "That is, unless someone is explicitly named as different, that everyone and everything in the play are white. That still is alienating for audiences. It was for me."

Following the publication of a much-circulated open letter to the white theater establishment last year, many in the field are questioning a canon dominated by white playwrights—with Shakespeare looming above them all.

They ask: What role does Shakespeare have in the diverse theater canon of the future?

André De Shields as Lear (left) addresses Nicole King as Cordelia), as J. Samuel Davis (Kent) and the company of <em>King Lear</em> look on, during at the 2021 St. Louis Shakespeare Festival.
Phillip Hamer Photography / St. Louis Shakespeare Festival
André De Shields as Lear (left) addresses Nicole King as Cordelia), as J. Samuel Davis (Kent) and the company of <em>King Lear</em> look on, during at the 2021 St. Louis Shakespeare Festival.

"You really don't see me"

If Shakespeare has traditionally been considered "white property," as UCLA's Arthur Little argues, one way to make his canon more accessible is simply to make casts and creative teams more diverse. There's been a movement in the U.S. since the 1990's to cast more Black actors in Shakespeare. But the once-popular trend of colorblind casting is giving way, in many quarters, to calls for color-conscious casting.

"Colorblind casting was putting your hands over your eyes and pretending that there's not a different person onstage, someone who has a different background or story or narrative," said Sherri Young, who founded San Francisco's African-American Shakespeare Company in 1994—in part to craft Shakespeare productions that explicitly reflect Black cultural influences.

"When people say, 'I don't see color,' that's an insult," Young said. "Because that means you really don't see me."

In the realms of television and film, color-conscious casting often is about handing the microphone to members of populations who are better suited to tell their own stories, but often have been denied opportunities to do so. As applied to Shakespeare, it's about breaking free from inherited assumptions and finding new ways to explore and enjoy the work.

The approach was seen in the Afrofuturist production of King Lear mounted last month by St. Louis Shakespeare Festival. Like The Tempest in Boston, the show was staged in that city's front lawn: Forest Park. It starred André De Shields, a recent Tony Award-winner for his work in Hadestown, as the mad king.

Director Carl Cofield, associate artistic director of the Classical Theatre of Harlem, set the production in an unnamed north African country. Its 18-person cast was composed entirely of people of color. So too were three of its four lead designers. Most of the artists involved were Black, and indeed the production as Cofield conceived it would be impossible with a majority of white actors.

In this context, when a French nobleman arrives and attempts to marry Lear's youngest daughter — but only if she holds onto her hefty inheritance — it brings to mind the history of European powers exploiting Africa's resources.

"It might sound different because you're not used to seeing an actor of color be a Hamlet, be a King Lear, be a Falstaff," Cofield said in June during a rehearsal break in Forest Park. "But if you stay with it and use your imagination, you might have a richer experience. It might be a different experience, but it's an experience that I hope will make you think about the work in a new way." (Cofield's production of Seize the King, a modern-verse adaptation by Will Power of Shakespeare's Richard III, is playing in Harlem through Thursday.)

André De Shields (left) as Lear and Jacqueline Thompson as Regan, with Allen Gilmore (Fool) and J. Samuel Davis (Kent) behind them, in <em>King Lear</em> during the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival.
Phillip Hamer Photography / St. Louis Shakespeare Festival
André De Shields (left) as Lear and Jacqueline Thompson as Regan, with Allen Gilmore (Fool) and J. Samuel Davis (Kent) behind them, in <em>King Lear</em> during the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival.

A reckoning afoot?

There's been momentum lately toward a color-conscious rethink of Shakespeare, with arguments from academia, professional theater and engaged readers all intertwining.

In February, The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Race, edited by Ayanna Thompson, took its place on the bookshelf of mainstream Shakespeare studies. Little is working on a book called White People and Shakespeare for Arden Shakespeare, a series as canonical as it gets when it comes to scholarly interpretations of the Bard. The four parts of a streaming "radio play" of Richard II produced last year by New York's Public Theater include prologues in which Thompson and others examine how race intersects with the work.

Shakespeare is still the most produced playwright in the U.S. every year, with no one else a close second. And the Classical theater world, plus the acting schools and training programs that feed it, often reflect white-dominated, ableist hierarchies present elsewhere in professional theater.

"Going into grad school, it was very daunting when an audition for any type of classical show came up," said Jacqueline Thompson, a Black actress who played Lear's daughter Regan in the King Lear at St. Louis Shakespeare Festival in June. "I almost was certain: I won't be cast in that. Or, I won't get a lead in that."

But good experiences with Shakespeare and Shakespeare instruction early on can seed exciting careers. Cofield said he didn't think the work spoke to him, as a Black man, until an acting teacher challenged him to find personal connections with the text. John Douglas Thompson, as a beginning actor, encountered a nourishing environment that set the stage for his success.

He wants the next generation of young actors to have the same experience.

"I'm disappointed in our academic facilities that haven't let our students of color, our LGBT students, our disabled students — that haven't let them know this work is for them. That haven't let them know: This work will fit you like a glove," he said.

Shakespeare's work is incredibly dense with ideas and perspectives, and open to interpretation. It's filled with insights into the human condition that are relevant to all. It also includes instances of what we would now call casual racism, which productions often fail to interrogate.

Take Theseus' much-loved speech about "lovers and madmen" in A Midsummer Night's Dream, when he remarks that a man distracted by love could mistakenly see the beauty of Helen of Troy in "a brow of Egypt." (Call it an Elizabethan dog whistle.) There's the never quite finished debate about whether The Merchant of Venice is an anti-Semitic play, or merely a play about anti-Semitism.

And, in Titus Andronicus, there's a sequence that scholar David Sterling Brown describes as a proto-Black Power speech.

Like life itself, it's messy.

Yet some Shakespeareans prefer what Arthur Little views as a "lobotomized" version of the Bard, in which these rich and provocative contradictions are smoothed out in favor of an anodyne vision of pre-racist excellence. This perspective is undercut by a troubling history of Shakespeare being linked explicitly with whiteness.

When Joseph Quincy Adams, descendent of presidents, spoke at the dedication of Washington D.C.'s Folger Shakespeare Library in 1932, he lauded Shakespeare's work as a patriotic force that binds up immigrants of all races into a common "Anglo-Saxon" culture. Shakespeare provided a steadying influence, he explained, during "the period of foreign immigration, when the ethnic texture of our population was seriously altered."

In effect, Little said, Adams asserted that the popularity of Shakespeare on these shores would "remind everyone that America is a white country."

"We cannot pretend that history isn't there," Little said. "And the question becomes: What can we do with Shakespeare, how can we imagine and think about Shakespeare, outside of that cultural history?"

The company of the Free Shakespeare in the Park production of <em>Merry Wives,</em> adapted by Jocelyn Bioh and directed by Saheem Ali, running at The Delacorte Theater in Central Park through September 18.
Joan Marcus / The Public Theater
The company of the Free Shakespeare in the Park production of <em>Merry Wives,</em> adapted by Jocelyn Bioh and directed by Saheem Ali, running at The Delacorte Theater in Central Park through September 18.

Fruitful territory

One answer comes in inclusive interpretations of Shakespeare. Productions which break free from Eurocentric assumptions by no means obscure the plays' themes, Akhimie said. Instead, they deepen them.

"Shakespeare is really fruitful territory for exploring questions about social difference of all kinds. He is so interested in exploring people who are out of place. There are lots of characters who are extremely eloquent at asking: Why am I an outsider, and is that fair? Why is it that I can't do the things I want to do, or be the person I want to be, because there are restrictions preventing me from doing that?"

Ayanna Thompson, the Public Theater's scholar in residence, consulted on that influential institution's current production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, which is set in Harlem amid a community of West African immigrants. The show, adapted by Jocelyn Bioh and directed by Saheem Ali, is onstage at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park through Sept. 18.

For John Douglas Thompson, a personal connection to Shakespeare came quickly. On opening night of his first production as an acting student, an instructor gave him a copy of Shakespeare in Sable, Errol Hill's history of Black Shakespeareans.

"This book made me see that: Oh, I am involved in this. I've been involved in this. There are people's shoulders who I'm standing on," Thompson said recently during a break from rehearsals for The Tempest.

Many Black actors are among the great Shakespeareans, from Ira Aldridge in the 19th century through to Paul Robeson, James Earl Jones and De Shields. Thompson has no patience for the suggestion that he doesn't fully belong in this world or that his work is not adequately valued. Indeed, theater critic Ben Brantley, then of The New York Times, wrote in 2009 that Thompson "staked his claim as one of the most compelling classical stage actors of his generation."

Thompson is well aware, though, that many Black actors have had a different experience in the American theater.

"Part of my journey was: OK, I'm going to cut this path for myself so that other people out there can see me doing it," Thompson said. "Other people who look like me, who might want to do it but don't have the impetus because they haven't seen themselves reflected: I will be that reflection for them. I can inspire them, hopefully, and then they can do the work."

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