“Is it possible disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it…?”

So I posted a long while ago that I had much to say about some recent productions of Much Ado About Nothing, including Joss Whedon’s latest film adaptation, well the time has come for me to go on record. At the risk of sounding like a four year old, let me start with “I hated it.” Now perhaps I can “unpack my heart with words” and provide a bit more critical response.

Whedon, as far a concepts go, nestles us in an ultra-modern Hollywood Hills environ which actually works quite nicely for the text. The acting, however, is quite uneven with some of your fave Whedonverse players doing a hack job of the text. A delightful exception is Nathan Fillion who shines as a deadpan Dogberry. But lets get real, I’m not a run-of-the-mill film critic, I’m here to call out the film for its failings where people of color are concerned.

Whedon shoots the film in black and white and there is a striking absence of black. There are less than a handful of people of color in the film and less than a handful of shots in which they appear. So already I have beef. How in a contemporary LA setting is EVERYONE white? Where are your black friends Joss? Some of your neighbors must be black right? So in a film that is already ranking disgustingly low on the diversity and inclusion scale, do you know what our boy Joss does? No. Good. I’m here to tell you.

He keeps the line that reads “I’ll hold my mind if she were an Ethiope.” And before you go all “he didn’t write it, your lover boy Billy Shakes did,” let me say I know I know I know he didn’t write it. I know Shakespeare wrote the line that reflects a prejudice (read racist) attitude of his time. I’m not making Joss responsible for that. But you know what Joss did? He put that text on the shot below.

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“I’ll hold my mind were she an Ethiope.”

Did you peep the frame? So while Claudio, who has rashly cast Hero aside believing her to be unchaste, states (to make amends) that he will marry Leonato’s niece EVEN IF SHE WERE BLACK, cut to 1 of 3 black actors that appear in the film. While Whedon didn’t pen the line, he directed and edited a film that posits racist characters at the center. In Whedon’s film, people of color are merely local color, and in very infrequent splashes at that. Whedon creates this frame, not Shakespeare. Whedon says “close up on the Ethiope” and makes a metaphor (albeit prejudice) a literal insult to a woman standing to the character’s right. No Ethiope’s appeared on the Elizabethan stage, no black or tawny woman had to stand by as she was ridiculed for the color of her skin (or nation of origin). And as we know with film, you plan every shot in advance. Whedon penned a shot list. He consciously thought this would make for good story telling. So what is the story?

Let’s talk about how other productions have handled this moment in the text. The other widely known and popular film adaptation, also lacking in its diversity but owning Denzel Washington as one of its stars, is the 1993 version directed by Kenneth Branagh. In this film when Claudio is asked, “Are you yet determined / Today to marry with my brother’s daughter?,” Claudio and the Prince offer a nonverbal response and merely nod. This was 20 years ago, and Branagh had sense enough to cut the line.

In 2011 on London’s West End, David Tennant (America’s favorite Dr. Who) starred in a very contemporary British production alongside Catherine Tate and directed by Josie Rourke. While also disappointing in its lack of POC, Rourke at the very least cut that specific exchange between Leonato & Claudio altogether.

And how about London’s Globe Theatre, world renown for historic recreation/speculation of how the plays may have been performed at the time they were written, how did they handle this bit of hairy text? Well first let me say that in their 2011 production directed by Jeremy Herrin, black actors Joseph Marcell and Ony Uhiara played the father/daughter pair of Leonato and Hero, While other black actors played a number of supernumerary parts. At the number one Shakespeare theatre in world, when Leonato asks “Are you yet determined / Today to marry with my brother’s daughter?,” Claudio responds, “I hold my mind.”

As do I Mr. Whendon. I hold my mind that I hate your film adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing and its intentional racial bias.

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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.

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.