Why Shakespeare?

I participated in a discussion recently that began with the question, “Why Shakespeare?” For me the answer is easy, Shakespeare captures a wide range of humanity in big, epic, messy, imperfect worlds where anything is possible. Complex emotions, motivations, desires are there along with fairies and ghosts, and fictive time can span decades or days or hours. And all of that in language that is unparalleled in the English speaking world. For me, that is why Shakespeare. Now is he the only writer worthy of production? Not by any means. Generations of playwrights have crafted worlds as rich, characters as moving, and stories that NEED to be told.

But I wanna wrestle with Shakespeare. I still want to own it. This 34 year old Black woman wants to stake claim to Henry 4 and gift to the 15 year old Black girl in me who felt access was restricted. Of course I will champion the work of my peers and collaborate with them to advance the art, but we share an ideology, we are already on the same page. What about the classrooms full of students of color, or low income students, or students who have no access to theatre or don’t find it very culturally significant? We aren’t shoving the plays of Suzan-Lori Parks or Marcus Gardley down their throats, but we are telling them that if they can’t read and understand Shakespeare then they aren’t meeting an intellectual standard, they won’t get into college, they are uncultured, they have diminished worth.

So I know I have some colleagues whose model of advocacy is to remove it, take away its cultural primacy and elevate other global works to the Shakespeare standard. I respect that model. I’m advocating something different. Empower students, like the 15 year old girl I once was, to OWN this language. Let them put the words in their own mouths. Let young adults play kings and queens and ghosts and fairies. Remind them that half of their favorite movies are based on Shakespeare plays and that Shakespeare, like their favorite hip-hop artist, sampled beats. STOP perpetuating the myth that Shakespeare is elite, that only “smart” people, or rich people, or white people can have a piece. And for goodness sakes let them get up from those lousy uncomfortable desks and “speak the speech.”

My love affair with Shakespeare didn’t begin when I was a child or teen. I hated the stuff. It was boring, I didn’t understand it, it wasn’t about me, and it certainly wasn’t meant for my enjoyment. And I was a theatre kid. Now I am obsessed with Shakespeare. He’s my guy, my go to, my calm, and I’m dedicating a career to those 37-38 plays. All because a teacher, one Tommy Gomez, said I could have it, make it my own, and play.

Tommy Gomez as Othello in The American Shakespeare Collective's 2012 production. I owe my love of Shakespeare to this man. Excellent Shakespeare teacher

Tommy Gomez as Othello in The American Shakespeare Collective’s 2012 production. I owe my love of Shakespeare to this man. Excellent Shakespeare teacher

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My students are often amused to learn that The Lion King is Shakespearean

I’m in tech. Because I am in tech, and only because I am in tech, I am taking it easy on you. So here is another video share. A super cool teacher created a Hamlet mash-up. It is EPIC and speaks to just how pervasive Shakespeare is in our culture. You will even spy a POC or 2 (more on that later).

Also look for an upcoming post on the Broadway revival of Romeo and Juliet starring my boos Condola Rashad and Orlando Bloom. This link can give you a little more insight while you await my musings.

sidebar: People call my younger brother Simba like it is his governement name

sidebar: People call my younger brother Simba like it is his governement name

 

Shakespeare is a Black Woman

I know you are only a 3rd of the way through my last blog post, but since I have made a commitment to myself to post here on Thursdays and Mondays, I am going to forge ahead.

I’ll take it easy on you this time and keep a low word count and instead share a videos that has really resonated with me.

Also, here are a few books I currently have my nose in (as I finish them, I’ll share about them here):

Will & Me by Dominic Dromgoole

Shakespeare in America by Alden T. Vaughn & Virginia Mason Vaughn

Shakespeare and the American Musical by Irene G. Dash

Now on Monday there will be words…stay tuned

In White Verona, where we lay our scene

Right now you’re asking, “Seriously Dawn, another blog?” Well yes…and here’s why: two weeks ago I watched the trailer for the upcoming Romeo and Juliet film.

Romeo and Juliet is my favorite play of all time, so of course I was beyond excited to learn of a new film version and I promptly watched the trailer 3 times in rapid succession (Imdb.com lists a July, 2013 UK release). It did not escape me that there aren’t any people of color on screen in this trailer, but I intend to reserve judgment until I see the film in its entirety. I did however stop on by the message boards on imdb where another person made note of the lack of POCs in trailer. Now here is where I lost my cool…

Clearly the Baz Luhrmann contemporary setting R+J (1996), it ain’t, but the amount of willful ignorance displayed in some of the board comments set my teeth on edge. Several (and I am understating this) people responded to the initial concern of no POC with “well it’s a traditional version,” “there were no black people in Italy,” “why would you expect to see people of color.” Well friends, here is why we CAN and SHOULD desire (if not expect) to see POC in this (yes even a “traditional”) version of Romeo and Juliet, black people lived in Italy. Shocking I know but (and I don’t want to turn this into a history lesson), we KNOW that Italy sits on the Mediterranean Sea and guess where else sits on the Mediterranean? Um that would be Africa friends. And let’s please not have the “which Africans are black and which aren’t debate.” Colonization does tricky tricky things to native populations.

Let’s look at Shakespeare’s other “Italian Plays.” In Merchant of Venice a Moroccan Prince is a worthy suitor for Portia, guess where he goes to woo…you got it Italy. And had she chosen him, their little babies would have been lords and ladies, chillin in Italy…with brown skin. What about Othello…do we think he is the ONLY Moor in all of Venice? Oh and hey in The Tempest the King of Naples marries his daughter to an African in Tunis. Brown skin princes all up in Napoli. Hermia (Greece, I know, a little further down the coast), is referred to as a “tawny” “Ethiope.” I could go on.

Now I understand that Shakespeare wasn’t Italian, wasn’t in Italy, and was writing very much through an English lens, but if black people made it as far north as England, you can damn sure bet they were in Italy. Remember how the Romans conquered everybody? remember how the Roman playwright Terence was black? I’m not writing about if racism existed or the extent to which people where cruel to one another based on class and other external factors. I know that in all of human history these problems have persisted. What I am suggesting is that Italy was not the fantasy land of homogenous culture and complexion that these commenters would like to believe.

Now if this director made casting decisions that don’t include POC, he wouldn’t be the first, but we don’t get to be so simple minded as to think that all shades of people haven’t inhabited the land masses surrounding the most notorious trade route of all time.

Want a lil more info beside my rant…you got it, try this book, Black Africans in Renaissance Europe edited by T.F. Earle and K.J. Lowe. There is also the multi-volume work, The Image of the Black in Western Art…or google.

So friends this is what’s in store. Me and my love affair with Bard…sometimes love song, often times rant…praises and disappointments alike. And yes, there will be ellipses galore.