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Shakespeare Unlimited podcast

African Americans and Shakespeare

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 20

African American engagement with Shakespeare goes back a long way—maybe even farther than you’d imagine. And like so much else surrounding American race relations, African American performance of Shakespeare is inextricably linked to the experiences of slavery, freedom, Jim Crow segregation, and the battle for equal rights.

In this episode, which we originally broadcast in 2015, we explore two periods in the long history of African American engagement with Shakespeare. One story begins in the 1820s, when freedom first came to the enslaved African Americans of New York. The other encompasses the long period of change stretching from the 1950s to today. We have help from five scholars of Shakespeare, race, and American History:

• Kim Hall is a professor of English at Barnard College.

• Caleen Sinnette Jennings is an actor, playwright, and professor of theater at American University in Washington, DC.

• Bernth Lindfors is professor emeritus of history at the University of Texas.

• Francesca Royster is a professor of English at DePaul University.

• Shane White is a professor of history at the University of Sydney in Australia.

This episode is narrated by Rebecca Sheir.

Listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Soundcloud, NPR One, or wherever you get your podcasts.

FolgerShakespeareLibrary · African Americans and Shakespeare (rebroadcast)

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “Freedom, Heyday! Heyday, Freedom!”, was originally February 11, 2015, and rebroadcast with an updated introduction on August 18, 2020. It was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. Edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help gathering material for Shakespeare Unlimited from Esther French. Esther French and Ben Lauer are the web producers. We also had help from Britta Greene and Anne Marie Baldonado at Fresh Air with Terry Gross, who gave us their 1987 recording of August Wilson. Original music composed and arranged by Lenny Williams.

The title of this episode uses an alternate spelling (“heyday”) in quoting Caliban’s exclamation; it is “high-day” in the Folger Digital Texts edition of The Tempest.

Previous: Shakespeare in Black and White | Next: Designing Shakespeare


MICHAEL WITMORE: The African American experience with Shakespeare goes back a long ways. Maybe even longer than you’d imagine.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. Like so much else surrounding American race relations, the African-American performance of Shakespeare is thoroughly bound up with the experiences of slavery, freedom, Jim Crow segregation, and the battle for equal rights.

In this podcast and the next, we take a look at this uniquely American intersection between Shakespeare and society… the choices made by African American actors and scholars who—over the years—have performed, taught, and studied Shakespeare.

This episode—which we originally broadcast five years ago—focuses, in part, on two fascinating times in the long history of African American engagement with Shakespeare. One story begins in the 1820s, when freedom first came to the enslaved African Americans of New York. The other encompasses the long period of change stretching from the 1950s to today. We call this podcast episode “Freedom, hey-day! Hey-day, freedom!” It’s narrated by Rebecca Sheir.

REBECCA SHEIR: Here’s an anecdote to consider as we start. It’s from Kim Felicia Hall, a professor of English who teaches Shakespeare at Barnard College.

KIM HALL: I’ll just say when students come to my class, and they’re shocked that I’m black, [LAUGH] that’s a kind of subtle message, and I had a student one time who came and wanted to know where my degree was from.

SHEIR: Who does Shakespeare belong to in America? We like to say “everyone,” but does he?

HALL: I don’t think people are told, specifically, “You’re not allowed to interpret Shakespeare,” but I think there are kind of subtle messages, “Shakespeare is not for you,” or “Shakespeare is not…” that kind of exclude Shakespeare from your cultural heritage.

SHEIR: That message of exclusion is something that Hall, who also teaches Africana studies, says she’s been hearing her whole life—her academic life, anyway. And that message about Shakespeare has gone hand in hand with a second message, which she relates with this story about a professor at a prestigious liberal arts college in New England.

HALL: He stopped the class and put his chalk down and said, “No African American has written anything that would ever be worthy of being part of an American literature class.” And he completely cut off conversation.

SHEIR: That these messages are present, both the subtle ones and the overt, that shouldn’t surprise anyone, Hall says.

HALL: It goes with a long history of denigrating blacks’ intellectual capabilities.

CALEEN SINNETTE JENNINGS: There always has been that tension, about to what degree we have to prove ourselves intelligent and articulate, and so forth.

SHEIR: Caleen Sinnette Jennings is a professor of theater at American University in Washington, DC.

JENNINGS: Shakespeare has often been used by African Americans as a way of proving worthiness.

SHEIR: One way that’s been done, especially in the realm of Shakespeare on stage, is to not only master his work, but to shape it. At different times in the 19th century, and into the 20th and 21st, according to DePaul University English Professor Francesca Royster, African American theater artists…

FRANCESCA ROYSTER: Really influenced what it means to perform American Shakespeare.

[CLIP of James Earl Jones as King Lear:]

Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth,
With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks,
Turn all her mother’s pains and benefits
To laughter and contempt, that she may feel

ROYSTER: The English who came here and settled in the New World didn’t do with rhythm and language what we did. So whatever they imported, changed with their response to us.

[CLIP of African American Shakespeare Theater production of Julius Caesar:]

Had you rather Caesar were living, and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, and live all free men? As Caesar loved me, I weep for him.

SHEIR: Over the years, these artists have brought their own skills, their perspectives, and their life experiences to the stage, and put their stamp on the American performance of Shakespeare.

ROYSTER: One sees this most clearly with Paul Robeson, who was the first modern African American to perform Othello.

[CLIP of Paul Robeson as Othello:]

Amen to that, sweet powers!
I cannot speak enough of this content.
It stops me here; it is too much of joy.

ROYSTER: He talks in his letters and in his essays about bringing his experiences with racism to the performance.

[CLIP of Paul Robeson as Othello:]

Silence that dreadful bell. It frights the isle
From her propriety. What is the matter, masters?

SHEIR: We need to go back more than a century to see how this story began, how people who were enslaved and denied the ability to read came to know, and then change, Shakespeare.

ROYSTER: There is this puzzlement, you know, how were blacks exposed to Shakespeare?

SHEIR: Caleen Jennings says it’s not such a puzzle. After all, she says:

JENNINGS: We were living intimately with you, and living intimately with the understanding of what white people valued, what white people did for pleasure and entertainment.

SHEIR: Kim Hall imagines a white home, the family reading Shakespeare together at night, with the house slaves listening on the other side of the door.

HALL: I think about that, “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” if a black servant is in a household hearing somebody say that, you know, thinking that that is their condition, you know, beweeping his “outcast state,” right.

SHEIR: Recitations in the home wouldn’t have been the only Shakespeare that a slave might come in contact with, because, as Francesca Royster points out:

ROYSTER: Servants accompanied their masters, sometimes, to the hall, so I can imagine, you know, say, a black groomsman sitting outside the outdoor theater hearing the entire performance.

SHEIR: And it really doesn’t matter, when it comes to Shakespeare, that slaves were not permitted to read, because, according to Shane White, a professor of history at the University of Sydney in Australia:

SHANE WHITE: I don’t think many people were reading Shakespeare at that time, I think Shakespeare was listened to in the early 19th century, rather than read. The whites were watching Shakespeare, so the blacks watched Shakespeare.

SHEIR: According to Kim Hall, it only takes a small bit of knowledge about the world of African cultures to understand how, once Shakespeare was heard, a fondness for his work might have grown.

HALL: African Americans have come from a long tradition of oral performance, and so I think they have an appreciation for theater, and for someone like Shakespeare who comes from an oral tradition.

JENNINGS: We use storytelling to tell history. So much of that is a part and parcel of African, particularly West African, cultures.

[CLIP of ACTco production of As You Like It:]

Therefore heaven nature charged
That one body should be filled
With all graces wide-enlarged.
Nature presently distilled
Helen’s cheek, but not her heart,
Cleopatra’s majesty,
Atalanta’s better part,
Sad Lucretia’s modesty.
Thus Rosalind of many parts
By heavenly synod was devised
Of many faces, eyes, and hearts
To have the touches dearest prized.
Heaven would that she these gifts should have
And I to live and die her slave.

SHEIR: And there’s another point of appeal. It’s built into that tableau Kim Hall conjured earlier, when she imagined that slave hearing and internalizing Sonnet 29. There is, and there was, power in Shakespeare’s words, as Caleen Jennings puts it:

JENNINGS: The genius of Shakespeare is a thread that runs through all his work, is the relationship between power and authority, the slaver and the enslaved.

SHEIR: The late poet Amiri Baraka often told students about the power that came from a full-fledged grasp of Shakespeare. Here he is speaking at Rutgers University in 1984.

[CLIP of Amiri Baraka at Rutgers University, 1984:]

AMIRI BARAKA: If the people that rule this country thought that you could understand what Shakespeare’s really saying, they would remove Shakespeare from us. Shakespeare, if you really penetrate what he’s saying, the reality of what that drama is, you will see that Shakespeare is a revolutionary for that period.

SHEIR: And not just for that period. Shakespeare became a rallying point for a group of African Americans seeking to take and assert power at a time when African American slaves were gaining freedom for the first time in America.

We think of American slavery as a Southern institution, but it was legal and practiced in all the colonies, and later, all the states, in America’s early years. Massachusetts was the first state to outlaw slavery. That happened in 1783. But while there was freedom in Boston, New York City still had hundreds of slaves. By the early 1800s, this was starting to change, as the other New England states and Pennsylvania started to phase out slavery. The University of Sydney’s Shane White has written extensively about the end of slavery in New York. At this time, he says:

WHITE: You get a series of individual deals in which slaves would negotiate with their masters for payment of a cash sum, or the promise of being a “good” slave for three or four years, would then be able to negotiate their freedom.

SHEIR: White says one effect of these deals is that, when the state finally outlawed slavery in the 1820s, African American New Yorkers radiated an extra level of confidence and they went out of their way to show it.

WHITE: There’s this celebration and assertiveness and aggressiveness to the way blacks were behaving on the streets in New York. Blacks were no longer deferentially giving way to whites walking along the pavements. You noticed this assertiveness in the way blacks dressed themselves. This is the creation of the black dandies and the resentment of whites at the way blacks were parading on the streets.

[Actor reading article by Mordecai Noah, 1820s:]

MORDECAI NOAH: It was not an uninteresting sight to observe the entree of a happy pair. The gentleman, his wool nicely combed, and his face shining through a coat of sweet oil, borrowed from castors; cravat tight to suffocation, having the double faculty of widening the mouth and giving remarkable protuberance to the eyes… The lady, with her pink kid slippers; her fine Leghorn, cambric dress with open work; corsets well fitted; reticule, hanging on her arm. Thus accoutered and caparisoned, these black fashionables sauntered up and down the garden, in all the pride of liberty and unconscious of want.

SHEIR: That’s an article by Mordecai Noah, editor and theater critic for a newspaper called the National Advocate. His patronizing and racist attempts at humor are uncomfortable to hear today, but for better or worse, he was an in-depth observer of the New York scene in the 1820s. Here, he’s writing about one particular assertive act by an African American in the wake of freedom in New York: the creation of a small business, an ice cream parlor on the southern edge of Greenwich Village.

[Actor reading article by Noah:]

NOAH: Among the number of ice cream gardens in this city, there was none in which the sable race could find admission and refreshment…. Accordingly, a garden has been opened somewhere in back of the hospital called the African Grove … at which the ebony lads and lasses could obtain ice cream, ice punch, and hear music from the big drum and the clarionet.

SHEIR: The Grove takes on significance in American history when the owner, William Brown, decided to add one more amusement to the bill. Sometime in 1821, he created the African Theater and started putting on plays.

[Actor reading article by Noah:]

NOAH: After several nightly caucuses, they resolved to set up a play, and the upper apartments of the neglected African Grove were pitched upon for the purpose. Richard the Third, after mature deliberation, was agreed on, and a little dapper, woolly-headed waiter at the City Hotel personated the royal Plantagenet.

SHEIR: The first performance staged by the African Company, possibly the first professional African American theater production ever, was a Shakespeare play. With all the work they might have chosen, why Shakespeare? Well, Shane White says, Richard III was the play performed most often in the first half of the 19th century in America, but, according to Kim Hall, there was more to it than that.

HALL: I think the African Company would choose Shakespeare for several reasons. One is to kind of prove their mastery of a culturally authorized text and to prove that Shakespeare is the purview of blacks, as well as of whites.

SHEIR: And there was even more, according to Shane White.

WHITE: There’s a degree of empathy with Richard III, because he’s not very far removed from the trickster figure in African American culture. Here’s someone who’s got a disability, but who manipulates things, and is attempting to achieve things through sort of dextrous maneuverings of people. This was exactly what many of these slaves had had to do in terms of negotiating their freedom with their masters.

[Actor reading article by Noah:]

NOAH: If any proofs are wanting of the native genius and vigor of thought of our colored fellow citizens, surely their conception of Shakespeare will be sufficient. And how delighted would the Bard of Avon have been to see his Richard performed by a fellow as black as the ace of spades.

HALL: I think what has been fascinating to watch is those people of African descent who were curious, and said “Wait a minute, maybe there’s a way in here.” Which is, I think, what the African Company did.

WHITE: Most of the audience is black, most of the audience were either ex-slaves or at least the sons and daughters of slaves, and most of them were well aware of the journeys they had taken to become free and it was a celebration.

SHEIR: Despite Mordecai Noah’s snide reviews, or maybe even because of them, the performances of the African Grove Theatre company were a hit. They were so popular that William Brown moved out of the little room on Thomas Street, where they’d been performing, and 11 blocks north, where he rented out the bar next door to an established theater, the Park. The owner of the Park was not happy about the competition and, because he was well connected, when he called the police to complain about the noise next door, Shane White says:

WHITE: The actors were all hauled off to prison and put in prison overnight.

SHEIR: They were released from jail on one condition, according to Bernth Lindfors, history professor at the University of Texas.

BERNTH LINDFORS: They had to promise never to perform Shakespeare again.

SHEIR: While the Grove has its own place in African American history, it’s also thought to have spawned a legacy: the most famous African American in Europe in the mid-19th century, an actor named Ira Aldridge. Whether Aldridge came directly from William Brown’s African Theatre or not is in dispute, because, Shane White says:

WHITE: Aldridge invented a fair bit about himself.

SHEIR: According to Bernth Lindfors, who is also the leading Aldridge biographer:

LINDFORS: Supposedly, Aldridge got started with that theater, though there’s no existing documentation.

SHEIR: He was at least at the Grove the night the theater next door sent over a group of toughs to beat everyone up and extort Brown into closing.

WHITE: I found a document in which he files for assault.

SHEIR: The handwriting on that document says a lot, especially considering it came only a few years after the abolition of slavery in New York.

WHITE: Ira Aldridge’s hand is just immaculate. It’s a beautiful, beautiful signature.

SHEIR: For all the fanciful stories about Ira Aldridge, that signature tells us a lot about who he really was, and where he came from.

WHITE: Ira Aldridge had the best education a black could have.

SHEIR: He was born near the original African Grove in lower Manhattan, and, according to Bernth Lindfors:

LINDFORS: Was educated, briefly, at the second African Free School in New York City.

SHEIR: His father wanted him to be a preacher, but he fell in love with the stage. He’s known to have started acting very early. His first known role?

LINDFORS: Romeo and Juliet, which he performed with a black actress. It could have been the African Theatre, it could have been just an amateur show that they put on.

SHEIR: What is known, and it’s an important marker on the path to fame that Aldridge would enjoy, what is known is this: The African Grove Theatre company had one remarkable actor, a man named James Hewlett.

LINDFORS: It was really because of Hewlett that Aldridge got his start on the London stage.

SHEIR: Hewlett would later travel the country, impersonating the world’s great white actors in their most famous roles, but what happened at the African Grove was, an English comedian named Charles Mathews was touring America, storing up material for a new show he was preparing that poked fun at different kinds of American types.

[Actors performing A Trip to America:]

YANKEE 1: Pray, sir, does the election take place today?
YANKEE 2: Yes, sir.
YANKEE 1: Who’s to come in, pray?
YANKEE 2: Why, that gentleman that’s just gone out.
YANKEE 1: And who’s to go out, sir?
YANKEE 2: Why, that gentleman that’s just come in.

SHEIR: In the course of his travels, Mathews paid a visit to lower Manhattan.

LINDFORS: He went to the African Theatre, he saw Hewlett, he had Hewlett do a private performance before him, and he invented this story about a black actor butchering Shakespeare.

WHITE: So, for example, in Hamlet, where he says “Opposed them,” the blacks in the audience, there in Mathews’s version of it, say “Oppose him, opossum, opossum,” and he has to sing “Opossum Up a Gum Tree,” the song.

SHEIR: The bit, which, as you can probably tell, was virulently racist, was called “The African Tragedian.” It became enormously popular right about the time Ira Aldridge found his way to London, where he was working as a dresser, carrying the bags of a British actor.

WHITE: The only stage in America anyone in England had ever heard of was this stage that Mathews had performed, and Aldridge associates himself with that.

LINDFORS: He started, and his first role was Othello, and he’s advertised in the first playbill as the “American Tragedian” from the African Theatre in New York City. Second playbill refers to him as the “African Tragedian.” So, everybody goes to the theater expecting to laugh, because this is the man they think Mathews saw in New York City. He was performing at the Royal Coburg, which is, you know, in an unfashionable part of London, with a working-class audience, and they’re all going to laugh. And they’re stunned, because this is the first African on the stage, doing legitimate drama, and it’s really quite stunning for them, with their expectations of what an African would be like.

[CLIP of an actor as Othello:]

Haply, for I am black
And have not those soft parts of conversation
That chamberers have, or for I am declined
Into the vale of years—yet that’s not much—
She’s gone, I am abused, and my relief
Must be to loathe her. Oh, curse of marriage

LINDFORS: And, of course, Aldridge appears as a Shakespearean actor and they would think, “My god, we’re seeing the real Othello for the first time.”

[CLIP of an actor as Othello:]

Exchange me for a goat
When I shall turn the business of my soul
To such exsufflicate and blowed surmises,
Matching thy inference. ‘Tis not to make me jealous
To say my wife is fair, feeds well, loves company,
Is free of speech, sings, plays, and dances well.

SHEIR: It’s not long before the London press drops by to get a glimpse of this remarkable performance.

LINDFORS: Aldridge then is reviewed in the Times as the “African Roscius.”

SHEIR: Roscius was a celebrated Roman actor who had tutored Cicero.

LINDFORS: It became the custom in the British stage to call someone a “Roscius” if they showed precocious talent on the stage. Garrick was the English Roscius. There’s a Kentucky Roscius, there’s a Hibernian Roscius, there’s an equestrian Roscius. Well, Aldridge, as the only black actor on the British stage, becomes the African Roscius. And in the Times review, which was damning of his performance, this is ironic. But he picks it up, and when he starts touring, this is what appears on the playbills: “The African Roscius.” He managed to then fabricate an African identity out of that name.

SHEIR: He told reporters he was from Senegal, that his grandfather was a chief who didn’t want to sell his subjects into slavery, that his father was taken by missionaries to America, where he’d married an American and returned to Africa to reclaim his birthright. The press loved it and printed every word.

LINDFORS: I think another thing you have to understand about this fabricated African identity is the way Africans were presented on the stage.

SHEIR: He’s not just talking about how they appeared as fools and servants in comedies and melodramas.

LINDFORS: You also had real Africans exhibited in Britain as biological specimens, or ethnological specimens. You had, in other words, a kind of ethnological show business going on.

SHEIR: He’s talking about people like Saartje Baartman, an African woman displayed in European freak shows as the Hottentot Venus.

LINDFORS: She was brought and exhibited primarily because she had an enormous bottom, and crowds would go to see this kind of carnival show. Hers is a very sad kind of story. But it’s an illustration of the kind of specimen that European crowds were interested in, because they saw Africans sort of at the bottom of the world’s civilizations.

SHEIR: With Aldridge, by contrast, Europeans saw a black man on stage performing the work of the greatest poet and playwright in the English language. He toured England and Europe to ecstatic reviews.

LINDFORS: He would do Shylock, Richard III, and he also brought back Titus Andronicus, so he could play Aaron the Moor as a hero, rather than a villain. It was the first time that play had been revived for about 250 years.

SHEIR: In the US at this time, the most popular entertainment were minstrel shows, where white people put burnt cork on their faces and played black stereotypes. Aldridge wanted nothing to do with the American theater and remained overseas for the rest of his life.

WHITE: Many African Americans have found life rather more comfortable outside of America than inside of America.

SHEIR: And that, of course, remains an accurate observation long after the death of Ira Aldridge, who passed away in Poland, still on tour, in 1867. Back in the US, black theater companies formed in the decades after the Civil War, and some put on Shakespeare. In the early to mid-20th century, black universities developed their own theater traditions, including Shakespeare, and in 1943, Paul Robeson triumphed on Broadway as Othello. Yet, despite all that, chances remained slim for a black actor to get other Shakespearean parts, or, frankly, any parts, outside of primarily black productions. That changed when Joseph Papp created Shakespeare in the Park in the 1950s and instituted what was called “color-blind casting.” Here he is explaining it on a local New York TV station in 1979.

[CLIP of Joseph Papp, TV interview, 1979:]

JOSEPH PAPP: This is for the summer, the second play we’re doing is Othello, with Raul Julia playing Othello. He’s Puerto Rican. He’s playing a role which was usually reserved for blacks in this country, and reserved for whites in England.

SHEIR: When this idea was first introduced, Francesca Royster says it was revolutionary.

ROYSTER: Joseph Papp and the New York Shakespeare Theater was very important in terms of thinking about casting and race in political terms.

SHEIR: Caleen Jennings was acting in New York at the time. The idea, she says, was:

JENNINGS: Why can’t a black Lear say “Blow winds, and crack your cheeks!” and we just experience that as a person?

[CLIP of James Earl Jones as King Lear:]

Get thee glass eyes,
And like the scurvy politician
Seem to see the things thou dost not.

JENNINGS: It’s not that we deny the fact that we see the color of that person, but that should enhance and deepen our connection, rather than “Oh my God, that person’s black,” rather than sever the connection, it should deepen it, if we are truly living that doctrine of universality.

[CLIP of James Earl Jones as King Lear:]

I’ll put ‘t in proof,
And when I have stol’n upon these son-in-laws,
Then kill, kill, kill, kill!

JENNINGS: I was in grad school at Tisch when all this was going on, so all I knew was I was a black actor, and I wanted parts. And I didn’t have sort of the overview and the perspective on it, and I can’t say that I’ve done enough research to know about all the players, but I do know that it had to do with fighting on the most basic economic level, fighting to get actors of color work.

[CLIP of Joseph Papp, TV interview, 1979:]

BEVERLY SILLS: Is this going to be one of your integrated plays?

PAPP: No, that’s not integrated, the integrated work that we’re doing is an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage.

SILLS: Well, who’s doing that adaptation?

PAPP: Ntozake Shange, the author of For Colored Girls, and she also has a production now running in the theater called Spell #7. But she’s adapted it and changed the period to after the Civil War.

SHEIR: A lot of white people in the theater world were patting themselves on the back for embracing color-blind casting, but not everyone saw it as a universal good.

JENNINGS: And then, of course, we had August Wilson’s “The Ground on Which I Stand,” which kind of put the brakes on everything and had us go back and reexamine, “Wait a minute, what’s happening here?”

[CLIP of August Wilson, 1997:]

AUGUST WILSON: Imagine the possibilities of black theater and power with the tools necessary to create its own unique art, the resources to nurture and provide homes for talented artists, and a place where your visiting pass doesn’t expire—usually on March 1, after Black History Month. [LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE]

SHEIR: August Wilson had a message for African American artists: white people don’t want you here, but that’s okay. You can leave behind all those works you’ve been told are great, you don’t need them anymore.

JENNINGS: He’s created this work as a gift for African American actors, to be bigger through his text, and to tell our stories. And I think his anger about black people still doing Shakespeare, not to put words in his mouth, my perception of it, “Why are you still trying to do this work when this is here?” I think it’s his way of saying, “Don’t keep knocking on the door, when the door is locked.”

[CLIP of August Wilson, 1997:]

WILSON: Why is it that blacks have to be free from themselves, from the ghetto of being black, embrace white culture, and then suddenly they’re free and they’re not limiting themselves. So when you have this situation of white playwrights, as an example, exploring their culture, no one says to them that they’re limiting themselves in that. I would suggest that they’re not, no more than I am limiting myself by exploring black culture.

JENNINGS: “Create your own options, there’s a body of literature that’s been made for you as a gift, take that, we don’t have to constantly prove who we are anymore.”

[CLIP of August Wilson, 1997:]

WILSON: Never is it suggested that white playwrights like David Mamet or Terence McNally are limiting themselves to whiteness or that they are being confined in their art by pursuing white themes.

SHEIR: This attitude, Caleen Jennings says, is not isolated. She says it’s typical among many of her African American students when it comes to studying and performing Shakespeare. She says she fully understands the sentiment.

JENNINGS: Shakespeare’s plays are often problematic, in terms of the messages about class and race, and certainly color.

SHEIR: How, after all, is someone with dark skin to feel about a passage that talks about “Ethiop words, blacker in their effect / Than in their countenance” in As You Like It? Or when Benvolio tells Romeo, “I will make thee think thy swan a crow,” because, of course, white is better than black.

[CLIP of Jennings teaching a class:]

JENNINGS: To get us started, I need three volunteers, I’m going to ask for volunteers before you even know what you’re going to do. Good, let’s have Josh, let’s have Maureen, and let’s have Jenna.

SHEIR: Today, when she’s working with students, Jennings uses that ambivalence to drive a message home.

[CLIP of Jennings teaching a class:]

JENNINGS: I want to start a brainstorm. We’re going to have two discussions, the first is “Things I Love About Shakespeare,” and some of you may need to be silent, there may be nothing, that’s fine, because the second part of our discussion: “Things I Hate About Shakespeare.”

SHEIR: The message is, regardless of how you feel about Shakespeare, what he represents to the white world, to the world at large, whatever your worries, whatever vulnerabilities or insults you perceive in the text, put them aside. Instead, do what Ira Aldridge did, use it as the actors did at the African Grove, and Paul Robeson, and James Earl Jones, and George Wolfe, and the Classical Theatre of Harlem.

JENNINGS: I’m always saying to young African Americans, think of this as currency, think of Shakespeare as currency.

[Clip of Classical Theatre of Harlem production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream:]

If I do it, let the audience look to their eyes. I will move storms; I will condole in some measure.

JENNINGS: When you audition, when somebody says to you “Do you have a classical piece?” If you want to be in this business, you’ve got to be able to say “Yes, I have several.” Why would you knock yourself out of the box, purely because you’re intimidated by it or it makes you angry or whatever.

[CLIP of Classical Theatre of Harlem production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream:]

piping to us in vain,
As in revenge have sucked up from the sea
Contagious fogs, which, falling in the land,
Hath every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents.

JENNINGS: Take it, own it. It doesn’t mean that you have to make friends with it, but it is currency. It’s a way to get your foot in the door, and, like it or not, people will think of you differently.

SHEIR: Back to that original question, is Shakespeare for everyone? In a way, the African American experience with Shakespeare may be the best evidence that it’s true. The late poet Maya Angelou made this point on the BBC’s Every Woman program in the 1990s. Much earlier in the show, she talked of being raped as a child. Later, the interviewer was talking to her about her artistic influences. Her answer is one that African American scholars still quote today.

[CLIP of Maya Angelou interview, “Every Woman” show, 1990s:]

INTERVIEWER: And I understand as a child, you loved Shakespeare, so was he a real inspiration to you as a poet?

MAYA ANGELOU: I was so amazed that he could know so much. But when I came to one, well, a number, of sonnets, I thought that must, it’s got to be a black girl who wrote that, a black girl who had been sexually abused and who had a grandmother who left her.

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone bemoan my outcast state,
And trouble a deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate.

See, that’s a black girl. [LAUGH]

WITMORE: “Freedom, Heyday! Heyday, Freedom!” was written and produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help gathering material for the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series from Esther French.

We also had help from Britta Greene and also Anne Marie Baldonado at Fresh Air with Terry Gross, for giving us their 1997 recording of August Wilson. Our narrator was Rebecca Sheir. The original music was composed and arranged by Lenny Williams.

If you’re a fan of Shakespeare Unlimited, please leave us a rating and a positive review on Apple Podcasts. When you do that, it helps us get the word out to people who haven’t heard it yet. Thanks.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.