African American Shakespeare: Past, Present, Future

The history of Shakespeare and race is a complicated one. Often, Shakespeare’s immense portfolio has a hidden or even obvious stigma against BIPOC performers. Shakespeare has long been viewed as part of the white “cultural identity”, which somehow limits it to performers that can’t play Banquo’s Ghost without any makeup. Despite these persistent stigmas, African-American performers and directors have steadfastly defied the stereotypes and performed every play Shakespeare ever wrote dozens of times over. The African-American Shakespeare Company, founded in 1994,  seeks to provide ever expanding opportunities for diverse people to feature in classical performances, both by setting them up and campaigning for further inclusion. The WeSeeYou movement also drew attention to these issues rather recently by speaking out about the daily acts of racism that BIPOC, but specifically African-Americans, experience in the theatre industry.

Every performance of “King Lear”, “Hamlet” or “Othello” is a reinterpretation of the original, a new marker on the rich history of Shakespeare’s catalogue. Every play is shaped by its director, its staff and its actors. Just putting on a rendition of “The Merchant of Venice” with an all black cast reframes the play into an entirely new light. That’s why performing plays already played tens of thousands of times can still carry so much impact, no performance is meant to relay the same message or deliver the same blow. Recently, SOU featured a talk on these very subjects.

On February 1, 5pm, SOU played host to a panel of prominent African-American directors and actors, discussing how race plays into performing the works of one of the most accomplished playwrights in history: William Shakespeare. The panel featured Peter Callender, Artistic Director for the African-American Shakespeare Company, Dawn Monique Williams, director and four year member of OSF, Jennie Greenberry, actor and five year member of OSF and Ayanna Thompson, scholar and author of several books concerning Shakespeare’s relation to race. Needless to say, every panelist is an accomplished Shakespeare-ist and more than qualified to speak on the subject.

The panel was hosted by David McCandless, who started off with a question about each panelist’s introduction to and eventual embracing of Shakespeare and his works. All but Callender, who was infatuated with Shakespeare from an early age, echoed sentiments that the overly dry way his plays are presented in middle and high school lead them to having almost zero interest in Shakespeare. It took a long time for most of them to grow any interest in the subject, usually through either performing in or viewing a modern adaptation.

They spoke on the popular racism and exclusion espoused by a Mr. John Simon, an infamously exclusionary critic who believed that blacks were entirely incapable of performing Shakespeare, in a conversation on traditional barriers blocking African-American performance artists from certain works. The talk eventually shifted to the unofficial “black canon” and the tremendous success of WeSeeYou, then to how their mission has been and always will be to connect young people with Shakespeare’s work and the performances of it. Finally, after a brief Q&A, the panel ended right on time.

Readers can watch the entire record talk HERE.

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