Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 183
Between 1821 and 1960, it would have been vanishingly rare to see a Black woman onstage performing Shakespeare. In Dr. Joyce Green MacDonald’s chapter in the new Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Race, “Actresses of Color and Shakespearean Performance,” she digs deep into the history of American professional theater in the United States to find records of every Black woman who has been paid to perform or recite Shakespeare in the United States. Barbara Bogaev talks with MacDonald about four performers who took to the stage in those 139 years: The African Grove Theatre’s “Miss Welsh,” Henrietta Vinton Davis, Adrienne McNeil Herndon, and Jane White.
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FolgerShakespeareLibrary · Black Women Shakespeareans, 1821 – 1960, with Joyce Green MacDonald
Dr. Joyce Green MacDonald is an Associate Professor of English in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Kentucky and a trustee of the Shakespeare Association of America. In 2011, she participated in the Folger Institute conference “An Anglo-American History of the KJV.” MacDonald’s new book, Shakespearean Adaptation, Race, and Memory in the New World, has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan. Her chapter “Actresses of Color and Shakespearean Performance: The Question of Reception” appears in the new Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Race, published by Cambridge University Press.
From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published February 1, 2022. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “Between You and the Women the Play May Please,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Evan Marquart at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Nick Stevens and Caleb Songer at Downtown Recording in Louisville, Kentucky.
Previous: Cutting Plays for Performance, with Aili Huber | Next: Stephen Marche on How Shakespeare Changed Everything
African Americans and Shakespeare
In the first episode of a two-part series from Shakespeare Unlimited, five scholars examine the long history of Black American Shakespeare performance.
Shakespeare in Black and White
Listen to scholars Ayanna Thompson and Marvin MacAllister explore Black Shakespeare performance in the early 20th century.
Frederick Douglass, A Shakespearean in Washington
Read more about Douglass’s support of Henrietta Vinton Davis and his own performance as Shylock with the Uniontown Shakespeare Club.
MICHAEL WITMORE: There are any number of things you might have seen on the professional stage in the United States in the years between 1821 and, say,1960: Fire jugglers, a dentist pulling teeth, a man singing songs with a duck. But you know what you wouldn’t have seen ever? A Black woman performing Shakespeare.
From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. In the new Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Race, Dr. Joyce Green MacDonald of the University of Kentucky has a chapter entitled “Actresses of Color and Shakespearean Performance.” To create it, she dug deep, deep into the history of professional theater in the United States to find everyone who fits the chapter’s title: every Black woman who has been paid to perform or recite Shakespeare on stage in the United States.
What she found is that, between the year 1821 and the time when Joseph Papp first began staging free Shakespeare in New York’s Central Park, there were exactly two women who fit that description. You’ll hear about them in this podcast, and, also, the woman who Joe Papp cast as Volumnia, Helen, and the Princess of France.
But that starting year—1821—is important. That year, just as slavery was being abolished in New York, a company of actors put on the first known all-Black professional theatrical production: the African Company’s now famous Richard III. Dr. MacDonald begins her chapter with a woman known only as “Miss Welsh,” who is likely the first Black woman ever to be paid to perform Shakespeare on stage.
Dr. MacDonald joined us from a studio in Louisville to talk about Miss Welsh and all of these long-lost performers in a podcast we call “Between You and the Women the Play May Please.” Dr. Joyce Green MacDonald is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: Could we start with some background before we talk about these three women you’ve written about? In early American theater in the 19th century, just how rare was it to see Black American actors, period? And by that, I mean ex-slaves or free Blacks or Black people from the Caribbean.
JOYCE GREEN MACDONALD: One of the things that drew me to this project in the first place was that there’s so much about it we don’t know. We probably have a sense of slaves in some kinds of domestic entertainments, but not necessarily in formal stage productions.
That’s why I became so interested in the African Grove Theater, because these were people who decided that they were going to put on a show. This group of Black actors.
BOGAEV: Right, so this is really a murky and kind of a blank slate. And the earliest appearance by a Black American woman that you found was of this Miss Welsh who played two roles in the African company’s famous Richard III production in 1821.
BOGAEV: And before we talk…
MACDONALD: And even there, there’s a lot we don’t know.
BOGAEV: Right. And before we talk about her, what do we know about the staging and the performances in this production of Richard III? So, we can picture it—I mean there’s a horribly racist newspaper review of it from the time that I read. I don’t know what we can reliably take away from that.
MACDONALD: There is the sense that this was a proscenium stage, but we don’t necessarily—I don’t have a sense of how big it was. The original plan was for Black audience members to be seated down front in the best seats. But the shows became so popular that they had to have separate sections for white patrons. So, it was an integrated crowd. But I don’t know a lot about the actual staging capacities that they were working with.
BOGAEV: Well, in terms of the performances, the review talks about the courting scene between Richard and Anne. And it quotes some dialogue, or at least it gives this white man’s impression of the dialogue, again, in overtly racist kind of dialect.
As you read what’s there in this review, does it sound like they’re actually doing Richard III or were they doing one of those minstrel versions of Shakespeare that were common at the time?
MACDONALD: What was really common is that you would see performances that wouldn’t necessarily be a fully staged production of a whole text. It could well have been scenes from the play.
The murkiness of the records I’ve been able to see for myself is one of the things I find so compelling about this. The only thing that shines through fully is that this group of Black actors was determined to perform publicly; set up this entertainment for the people in lower Manhattan and to choose Shakespeare as one of the things they wanted to play.
BOGAEV: These hybrid Shakespeare performances, though, were pretty wild. I mean it wasn’t uncommon, for instance, to have, like, a straight Shakespeare performance and then afterwards, wouldn’t there be kind of a burlesque production after that?
MACDONALD: Frequently. Yeah, I’ve talked to my students about this; it completely freaks them out. Because they think that when we go to see Shakespeare we’re very serious, it’s kind of like being in church. And then all of the sudden, in this 19th-century show, someone would come out maybe in a Hamlet-type costume and then he would jump Jim Crow.
That’s a fascinating kind of contradiction. It really talks—to me anyway—it really speaks about how race and performance of race becomes such a common cultural currency in this period. That it crosses registers of high and low. It crosses class barriers between elevated people who might want to see a serious Shakespeare and less educated audience members who just wanted to go out for the evening and have some fun.
In a way, it kind of knocks Shakespeare off his pedestal and claims him for this kind of wild, racial anxiety and re-representation that was taking place in New York in the first decades of the 19th century. That nothing was sacred.
BOGAEV: Okay, great. That really sets the stage for this conversation. That’s really vivid, thank you. Now getting back to Miss Welsh, you didn’t really know anything, it sounds like, about her before you started writing your article.
MACDONALD: No, I didn’t even know she existed.
BOGAEV: Right, and the review does give this one tiny piece of… I don’t want to call it theater criticism, but just opinion regarding her performance. It talked about how she always danced on the stage instead of the “Pensive march of the afflicted queen.” Maybe this is just one more example from the long history, as you were saying, of white reviewers not comprehending Black performance. But what do you imagine she was doing, that this critic saw it as dancing on the stage?
MACDONALD: Well, it’s entirely possible that she comes onto the stage not necessarily dancing but enraged. Now, it may be that this particular reviewer expected to see an actress be very pensive and solemn and sorrowful, and what he saw instead was this particular actress reading the role in a completely different way.
BOGAEV: The review says also that, “Miss Welsh is a chamber maid to a family near Park Place.” What does that tell you about how she might have come to be one of the first Black women Shakespearean actors?
MACDONALD: Well in those first couple of decades in lower Manhattan where there were lots of Black neighborhoods and where Black working-class people and white working-class people and immigrants lived shoulder to shoulder. There was a whole growth industry, you might say, of new cultural institutions for Black people.
William Brown, the founder of the African company, started off by starting up a place of entertainment for people to come hear live music, dance. There’s records of Black people and new white immigrants sort of showing each other’s dances, learning dances from each other, which is this really cool moment of cultural mixture.
If this actress was attracted to William Brown’s places of entertainment, and later, you know, was brought into this acting company, it’s entirely possible that she was just a neighborhood person. Somebody who came into one of these new institutions that was being built for Black people to come together and express themselves.
BOGAEV: Wow. I mean you really had to dig to resurrect and honor Miss Welsh and these other women.
MACDONALD: I did want to try and honor them because there’s so much energy here, there’s so much determination. People are taking the opportunities for themselves. I think it’s kind of wonderful. But it’s also—again, many of the details are obscured to us now.
BOGAEV: Well yeah. They were marginalized in history.
MACDONALD: Yeah, in the first place.
BOGAEV: How did you know where to look for the information that you’re telling us?
MACDONALD: Well, back when I was in graduate school, I remembered there was a book that we were told, that this is the place you want to go if you want to find out about early performances in the United States, especially in New York. A book by G.C.D. Odell, I believe it’s called Annals of the New York Stage.
So, I was sitting around sort of at loose ends one day, and I picked it up and was looking around, and also had a stack of other books about early Black performance, and found the playbook, and also at the same time in one of the other resources I was looking at, found another scholar referring to this playbill.
BOGAEV: So, that’s the scant information we have.
MACDONALD: Except that she did this.
BOGAEV: Yeah, that’s what you found about this Richard III production. How did you know where to look to find out about these other women? How did you know where to find them?
MACDONALD: Henrietta Vinton Davis was somebody I had heard about starting off as a little girl who was interested in acting and performance and Shakespeare from the time I was little. I had heard her name in connection with Frederick Douglass because her family apparently knew him.
Once I remembered her name correctly and started looking, I was able to find some mentions of her performance, which is really kind of great. She was born to a family of free Black people in Maryland. She had some, you know, pretty good degree of formal education. We know that she had advanced training in elocution. And we know that her family friend, Frederick Douglass, helped her to make her first stage appearances.
BOGAEV: This is Henrietta Vinton Davis, and she was a professional elocutionist. Which was common then, but maybe you should remind us what was it? These recitals, were they entertainment, was it educational, what was it supposed to be? Both?
MACDONALD: I think they were a combination of both. What the elocutionist did was to recite set pieces, whether it was poems or speeches. They would get out and perform these in front of an audience and try to bring out the true inner meaning of the piece that they were reciting, so the people in the audience would be elevated.
An evening might include a speech from a Shakespeare play. It might include comic songs. All different kinds of things. But the elocutionist’s skill was in moving through all of these genres. It’s really alien to a modern sensibility. But it was just really powerful. You saw people like Charlotte Cushman, for instance, who made a huge career doing elocution, as well as being in some full stage productions.
BOGAEV: Yes, and we’ve talked about Charlotte Cushman on this podcast, and she’s white. Now Henrietta Vinton Davis, a Black American woman was doing this at such a fraught time, though. I mean this really a period of terror as reconstruction was rolled back in the South. And here she was, daring to go on stage and to perform in this elevated way. I mean, it must have meant a lot to her audiences, her Black audiences to see a woman like that up on stage.
MACDONALD: You’re exactly right. I think that’s one of the things I find so compelling about her story. She was meant to be a performer. She was meant to be an actress. And despite this reimposition of racial terror, she was going to be on stage as a Black actress speaking to largely Black audiences, all though not exclusively Black audiences. She was going to be up there proclaiming her stature as a creative artist and showing people, you know, “This is who Black people really are. This is what we’re really capable of.”
Her determination to perform and finally to take control of her own career by helping to cowrite a play. Working in full length stage plays outside Shakespeare. I found it very moving.
BOGAEV: And this original play that she wrote, what was it like?
MACDONALD: Yeah, the play is called Our Old Kentucky Home. And I am a Kentuckian, I live in Louisville, so the title jumped out at me.
Unfortunately this play has not been printed. I did read a digest of it. And it’s about a mixed-race slave woman named Clotilde who is going to be sold, obviously as a sex slave, for the wealthy white men who come to this slave auction.
But she escapes and she helps to liberate her lover, who is also a slave, who has escaped and gone to fight for the Union Army during the Civil War. She helps him escape from a Confederate prison camp. They end up emancipated and they go back home to Kentucky and buy the old plantation where they had both formerly been enslaved.
The role that she took for herself is Clotilde, this woman who defied the kinds of definitions that had been put on her. It’s a story that really yearns toward the kind of self-definition that Black people, maybe especially Black women, were declaring for themselves in the midst of a public atmosphere of course that denied that they were capable.
BOGAEV: Wow. Intense. That must have been amazing. How did the play do?
MACDONALD: It went pretty well.
BOGAEV: But she had to give up acting, didn’t she?
MACDONALD: Well, I don’t think she necessarily had to; I think she decided to because the kinds of opportunities that she wanted for herself on the stage weren’t there.
She eventually left the stage all together. She didn’t just retire from the stage, she went into politics that were aimed at changing the conditions under which Black people lived and changing the ways in which Black people saw themselves. So, I think what happened to her is that her work on the stage started seeming less relevant.
BOGAEV: You also found this other Shakespeare performer, Adrienne McNeil Herndon. She also was the first Black woman on the faculty at Atlanta University. So really impressive career. She played Cleopatra in 1904. Again, it wasn’t a full-on production. You write that she did this impersonation of an entire play. So, a one woman show, sort of?
MACDONALD: Yes. With all of these different roles, obviously, the script that she was working from seemed like it had been edited down. But she performed all of these different parts during this evening’s entertainment, which sounds really extraordinary. But, again, sounds completely alien to anything we might expect to see on a stage now. We would think it was some kind of a stunt. What she’s doing is reciting the different character’s speeches, and you know, giving the impression of the play.
BOGAEV: She had a really interesting life. She was very light skinned, and it seems like she tried to lead a double life. One as a Creole Shakespearean elocutionist in the northeast of the country, and then as a Black female professor in Atlanta. Did she pull it off?
MACDONALD: No. No, ultimately, she did not pull it off. And you might imagine that this is something that pretty much couldn’t be pulled off.
BOGAEV: Well, I don’t know, back then there was no internet, so… right?
MACDONALD: That’s true, and it might have been more difficult to travel from Atlanta to the northeast you know, so people would know. But there was always someone who knew.
She had been to drama school in Boston and New York. And her husband, Alonzo Herndon, who had been born into slavery and yet, after emancipation, had become the city’s first Black millionaire, was the one who paid her school bills. So, I suspect that the people at her drama schools knew.
The fact that she thought that she could do this, I can’t quite grasp what her thinking was. But after that first extraordinary performance in Cleopatra in Boston, bookings dried up almost immediately. That is what leads me to suspect that somebody knew what was going on.
The next year after that Cleopatra performance and the lack of bookings that followed it, that was when she directed her first, what would become an annual Shakespeare play production at AU.
One of the things that has been occurring to me since I’ve been thinking about the premiers of these two actresses, is that I think that there’s a significance that’s attached to the fact that both of them were light-skinned Black women.
The secret that people did not want to address, did not want to talk about, was the consequences of slave rape. That there were a whole lot of light-skinned Black people walking around all over the country who were here because their enslaved mothers had been raped by white men. Their very existence in some ways confronted and exposed racial secrets that people did not even want to admit that they were keeping.
BOGAEV: I’m thinking of Trevor Noah in his memoire, describing himself as “the living evidence.”
MACDONALD: “I was born a crime.”
BOGAEV: Yeah. Living evidence of a crime, born a crime.
MACDONALD: Of a crime.
BOGAEV: On the other hand, if these actresses had had darker skin would they have been accepted? No, right?
MACDONALD: That wouldn’t work either. No, not at all. I mean you can see evidence of that in current internet controversies over casting of Black actresses in movies. And in the ways that we represent Black women especially, perhaps, for public consumption. That there’s something that’s still unwelcome about seeing dark-skinned Black women.
BOGAEV: Well, getting back to Adrienne McNeil Herndon, and her later career. You quote from an article that she wrote in an academic journal about Black performance of Shakespeare and young people. What did she see as the benefits of it for students, for young people performing Shakespeare?
MACDONALD: Well, first of all she felt that it was completely natural and normal for Black people to become Shakespearean actors. Because she says, “This is the greatest dramatist, in the first place,” she says. But then you look at the lives that Black people in America have led and the scope, the magnitude of Black people’s experiences in America, had something Shakespearean about it, in her view.
When you look at the extent to which Black Americans had lived and suffered and striven she says, they were sort of naturals for Shakespearean performance. That there wasn’t anything incongruous about Black people being Shakespeareans. That it kind of made sense. Because their lives brought them to the scope and the size of Shakespearean situations very naturally.
BOGAEV: I love that, that she claimed Shakespeare for her race. The dignity in that.
MACDONALD: Mm-hmm. Yeah, yeah. Very seriously. You know, and she wanted, I think, a Shakespeare career for herself. But it was not to be, and she put her energies instead into her students.
She said—I think, another remark about Black people’s natural presence. That they didn’t necessarily need, you know, formal academic or dramatic training. That their natural expressiveness was enough for these roles and that you know, really suited them.
I always—I look at that and I wonder if that’s a place where we can see her judging the time and energy that she put into her own training. You know, the training that came to nothing. Now that she’s putting her Shakespearean energy into this other direction, teaching and coaching her students, I wonder if it didn’t in some ways start seeming irrelevant or like a waste. The kind of career she’d wanted for herself is very different from the Shakespearean that she became there in Atlanta, as a teacher.
BOGAEV: Sure, and maybe she sees, like most teachers, that you know, future—that in the future, there will be more of a future for her students. And she was obviously a little bit before her time.
Then there’s Jane White, who you also write about. And she performed Shakespeare in New York in the 1950s. So, we’re jumping ahead. She also had a lighter skin color, and it seemed to cause her some casting problems.
MACDONALD: Yeah. She said that sometimes she was considered to be not white enough for some parts, and sometimes she was considered to be too Black for others. You know, and both of these were obviously painful—
BOGAEV: Yeah, you get it coming and going.
MACDONALD: –but, you know, to be misrecognized.
BOGAEV: That seems a very modern problem, I would think.
MACDONALD: Mm-hmm. One thing that jumped out at me from an interview with her, a newspaper interview I read with her, she started out her theatrical career at the same time as Geraldine Page. Geraldine Page made good progress and was getting big star parts on Broadway, and eventually moving into the movies. While Jane White said, you know, that she was stuck playing what they called “exotics”—Polynesians, Mexicans—that she could never just be on stage as a character. And that her race in some ways blocked and impeded her career.
But she was a beneficiary, I think, of being in the right place at the right time. Being in New York in early to mid-60s where the theatrical scene was starting to become newly animated with commitments to theater that suited and expressed the energies of this multicultural, multilingual world capital. And so, then she’s cast in public theater performances of Shakespeare by Joseph Papp.
BOGAEV: Right, he saw her on Broadway, right? And then cast her in a lot of Shakespeare roles at The Public.
MACDONALD: Yeah, and then started casting her, yeah. But she only got that part in Once Upon a Mattress—which was the show that started Carol Burnett’s career—she only got that part because even though they loved her and her first auditions, the staff was saying, you know, “There’s something that’s not quite right.”
So, she says, “Is it that you think I’m too dark?”
And they said, “Yeah, that’s it. We just don’t think you’d fit.” So she put powder on herself, like pale powder, on herself to make her skin look white and just apparently did the audition over again. They said, “Okay, yeah, this’ll work.”
BOGAEV: That’s really…
MACDONALD: Which is really kind of crazy. But you know, that’s what she had to do.
BOGAEV: Yeah, and luckily Joe Papp saw her, and then he cast her, as I said, in all these Shakespeare roles. But it sounds like she wasn’t that interested in Shakespeare.
MACDONALD: I don’t get the sense that she wanted to play Shakespeare more than she wanted to play anything else. I don’t think that she was as committed to Shakespeare as Davis or Herndon were. I think what she wanted instead was just to be able to act.
And it’s kind of funny because her father, Walter White, executive director of the NAACP for much of his career, was a Black man who was so light skinned that he went undercover as a white man in the deep south to collect information about lynchings. You know, and here is his daughter, who’s living a very different kind of life. But the color of her skin creates a different set of complications for her.
BOGAEV: Wow. I’m still thinking about her putting the powder on and re-auditioning. We’ve kind of skipped over—and you’ve talked about it here and there, but we’ve kind of skipped over just how much these three women had to overcome just to step on to a stage. Maybe you could lay out for us those roadblocks and the hurdles that stood in the way of them performing Shakespeare.
MACDONALD: Yeah, for Davis and Herndon, they lived and, you know, built their careers during a period of extreme racial reaction, after the failure of reconstruction. They were basically living under this anti-Black racist terror while they were trying to establish, not only careers for themselves, but to build a personal life, to have roots and connections to other people.
So, every time really that they tried to step onto a stage they were doing something that was considered inappropriate. And yet they did it anyway.
What Adrienne McNeil wanted to do was to build a life that vindicated, I think, her ability as a Black woman to be intelligent, to be a good wife, to build a home, to be a mother. All the things that were considered beyond Black women’s capacity, as they had been described as being debased and animalistic in the definitions that arose from slavery.
That’s why it was so painful for her, I think, after the… well they call them the Atlanta race riots of 1906, I believe. She said that she felt that her home had been violated and attacked. That there was no place that a Black woman could live in dignity and in domestic love that was safe from the depredations of what she called the “southern white man.”
Going back home to Atlanta and building her career at Atlanta University, nurturing those Black students, I think is a way to offer a refutation of those imposed definitions of Black people’s low capacities for culture.
What’s really tragic about her story is that she died when she was very young, she was only 40. Yet the tradition she started there at Atlanta University really continued, spread to other Black colleges in the Atlanta area, and finally began another really strong tradition of Shakespeare performance in historically Black colleges and universities.
BOGAEV: That leads me to my last question which is, you started out looking to honor these people, not knowing anything about what you’d find, pretty much, or not knowing anything about these three women. What, coming out the other end after doing this research, have you discovered about their commonality or the through line among the three? Or, what have you taken away personally?
MACDONALD: I think the through line is their will to self-expression. Whether it’s in, you know, Shakespearean performance or in their right to perform and be considered creative vessels capable of communicating these dramatic meanings.
Taking on a wide range of roles as we see in something like an elocutionary performance. Being able to rise beyond the negative valances that people attach to their Black bodies on stage.
To claim that creative capacity despite what people said about their ability to communicate artistic meaning. Their determination to do that. Especially the determination of Henrietta Vinton Davis and Adrienne McNeil Herndon is really powerful. And really inspiring.
BOGAEV: Well, I can’t wait to find out what you find out and to talk to you about it then. And I really enjoyed talking with you today, thank you.
MACDONALD: Thank you.
WITMORE: Dr. Joyce Green MacDonald is an Associate Professor of English in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Kentucky and a trustee of the Shakespeare Association of America. Her new book, Shakespearean Adaptation, Race, and Memory in the New World, has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan.
In the Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Race, Dr. MacDonald wrote the chapter titled “Actresses of Color and Shakespearean Performance: The Question of Reception.” She was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Race was published by Cambridge University Press and became available in the United States in February of 2021.
Our podcast, “Between You and the Women the Play May Please,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez.
We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Evan Marquart at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Nick Stevens and Caleb Songer at Downtown Recording in Louisville, Kentucky.
If you’ve been enjoying Shakespeare Unlimited, I hope you’ll consider reviewing us on Apple Podcasts. It helps us get the word out to people who haven’t heard it, and people who might enjoy it. We really appreciate your help. 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, folger.edu. Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.