Predominantly white Shakespeare: “that surfeiting, the appetite may sicken, and so die”

Okay, so this is where a couple tangent streams of thought are going to converge. I quit the internet for a while because I thought that my posts wouldn’t come to good. I was worried about sharing what I have been feeling because perhaps it would cost me work in my regional market; perhaps I would upset, offend, or make uncomfortable those in power and rather than rock the boat I should suffer in silence for the sake of career momentum.

Then a friend passed away, rulings of huge court cases that will have long lasting effects were announced, and this blog post, The Mythology of Color Blind/Conscience Casting went live on HowlRound. And I thought life is just too short and precious to hide, to be silent/silenced, and once again I was reminded that what I hate & envy most in others is audacity. So to my point…

I am not here for your lily white Shakespeare.

I know that there are black artist who feel the focus shouldn’t be on multicultural casting but on promoting plays and playwrights that have written roles for a cross section of talents and types. I respect this opinion. I am thankful for these colleagues who champion this work, who teach us who and where these playwrights are. I am friends with some of these contemporary writers and find deep personal connection to some of their plays, but here is what remains my truth, Shakespeare is my favorite playwright.

I have a long and complex history with Shakespeare, my love was hard won, “but I was won.” And considering that I endured a western public education, one in which a number of Eurocentric values were indoctrinated in me, it should come as no surprise to anyone that certain values stuck. Shakespeare is one of those values. So why now, as a theatre artist, do I feel excluded? I mean, sure I’ve been invited to the party, but like the others who’ve come stag, I’m dancing like a fool in the middle of the floor, alone. Feeling like my own brand of Caliban, “you taught me language, and my profit on’t is I know how to curse. The red-plague rid you for learning me your language!”

I just don’t need to see one more all white Shakespeare. Not where I live, not in any major metropolitan area, not in London, New York, Chicago, LA, San Francisco, or at the movies. Now I hear Ms. Stillwell (author of aforementioned HowlRound post), when she writes, “no theater season in America is complete without an adaptation of a Shakespeare play (pick one—it doesn’t matter) with an all white cast except for the one black girl who I like to call the ‘third black girl from the right.'” I call her that too. This is not what I am advocating, and in fact this brand of tokenism, “let’s get one in so we can say we are diverse,” is not sufficient or desirable. I’m talking about casting plays, ALL plays but in particular Shakespeare, in a way that reflects the world around us. I’m saying let the POC have some lines, maybe play a major role or two (scary I know). Coming from someone in a bio fam where brown & white coexist I can tell you that not all relatives look alike or are even the same race. And it’s not about the “all black/Asian/Latino” counter point, though, ain’t gonna lie, I’ll take it if it means seeing people who look like me doing work that I love.

Some of my colleagues will cite historical accuracy. Valid. Perhaps more valid with Tennessee Williams (though we should talk because my forthcoming production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, will be multicultural AND historically accurate – can you just imagine?). Since most of y’all aren’t doing Shakespeare historically (you’re casting women, you’re doing it in the 20’s, on the moon, in a barn, etc), I’m not sure the argument holds.

Also, Shakespeare gave a rats behind about historical accuracy himself, and I think we serve authorial intent to keep it relevant and topical for our audiences. So true, he wrote for a company of white men, but even then he wrote non-white, non-English characters because they (ahem) existed in his world. Shakespeare wrote globally and now we, who have all the resources and none of the censorship, can “accurately” represent the full human scope of these plays.

I’ve much more to say and already wrote more than intended, so here’s what I’m going to do, I’m going to call this a series because I want to give a shout out to theatres with track records of successful multicultural productions, and I want to call out a few specific short comings from others. Next up in this series is a look at some recent Much Ados, starting with Joss (I was going to insert something snarky here but I’ll save it) Whedon’s.

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