Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 19
In the second of two episodes about Black Americans and Shakespeare, we talk with scholars Marvin McAllister and Ayanna Thompson about the period between the end of the Civil War and the 1950s: from Reconstruction, through the period of Jim Crow segregation, and into the Civil Rights Era.
We’ll take a look at landmark performances like Orson Welles’s 1936 all-Black Macbeth and Paul Robeson’s groundbreaking Othello. We’ll also hear a less familiar story that dramatizes the tensions surrounding Shakespeare in the Black American theater—one set at Washington, DC’s Howard University, where a young Toni Morrison played Queen Elizabeth in the university’s production of Richard III in the early 1950s. Thompson and McAllister are interviewed by Rebecca Sheir.
Listen to Shakespeare Unlimited on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Soundcloud, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Ayanna Thompson is a Regents Professor of English at Arizona State University, the Director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, and a member of the Folger’s Board of Governors. Marvin McAllister is an Associate Professor of Theatre at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina.
From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “Our Own Voices with Our Own Tongues,” was originally published January 28, 2015, and rebroadcast with an updated introduction September 1, 2020. This episode was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French and Ben Lauer are the web producers. Special thanks Dr. James Hatch, co-author, with the late Errol Hill, of A History of African American Theatre; Connie Winston, Anthony Hill and Doug Barnett, co-authors of The Historical Dictionary of African American Theatre; and Jobie Sprinkle and Tena Simmons at radio station WFAE in Charlotte, North Carolina.
MICHAEL WITMORE: Sometimes a story is just too big to tell all at once. But that’s the nice thing about podcasts—they give you plenty of room to stretch out.
From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. This is part two of a series we created in 2015 on the African American experience with the performance of Shakespeare.
In the other podcast episode, we looked at the extraordinary history of African Americans who performed Shakespeare well before the Civil War—and a wealth of stories about African American performances of, and perspectives on, Shakespeare in the last sixty years or so. And to be honest, that’s an approach to the topic that’s fairly common.
But you might notice it leaves out something big: close to a century, from after the Civil War through the Jim Crow era of segregation to the 1940s and 50s. A lot of that territory has been explored far less often — and of course, that makes it all the more interesting.
When we first started looking at this time period, we discovered some wonderfully rich material, and we brought together two of the handful of scholars who have delved into it. One is Ayanna Thompson, Professor of English and director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Arizona State University. The other is Marvin McAllister, Associate Professor of Theatre at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina. We call this podcast episode “Our Own Voice with Our Own Tongues.” Marvin and Ayanna were interviewed by Rebecca Sheir.
REBECCA SHEIR: So, Marvin McAllister, I know that after the Civil War, and for a few years before the Jim Crow laws came into force, there was a period when African Americans in the South not only voted, but they even held political positions, including two US Senators. Now we know Shakespeare was popular in America in the 19th century, and it made me wonder whether there were Black Shakespeare troupes during this period, and I gather the answer is murky at best for those years, no?
MARVIN MCALLISTER: Well, I can’t say definitely there weren’t, but I just know that the majority of Black performers post-1860, post-Civil War, were engaged in some type of connection to a blackface minstrel troupe. Now, not all of them performed in blackface. Some of them might have been opera singers, or other ethnic impersonators, but they were associated mostly with some type of colored, musical blackface traveling troupe.
SHEIR: And Ayanna, after Jim Crow came into full force, could African Americans go to the theater as audience members?
AYANNA THOMPSON: No. And we, in fact, know at the National Theatre in DC, that Black audience members could go into the theater before the Civil War, because we have a note in the Washington Intelligencer about the creation of a third tier of seating for, and this is the quote, “for properly conducted persons of color,” so we know in the mid-19th century that persons of color could go to the theater in DC, and then sometime, right after the Civil War, that ceased to exist.
SHEIR: Marvin, as we get into the 20th century, we find more African American companies performing, including some that do Shakespeare. Tell us what you know about, for instance, the Ethiopian Art Players.
MCALLISTER: Well, the Ethiopian Art Players was an interesting experiment out of Chicago. It was kind of in response to the Red Summer, the race riots in Chicago in 1919, and some well-meaning Black and white Chicagoans decided that they wanted to do a project that brought together white artists and Black artists, but also would ultimately integrate theatergoing in Chicago.
And their idea was to bring in a guy named Raymond O’Neil, who was a director out in Cleveland at one of the art theaters there, and they put together a repertoire of plays, including some Shakespeare, including one original Negro drama, including some Greek drama, and they decided that they would put this together, debut it in Chicago, and then actually tour it to DC and actually end up on Broadway. And a cornerstone of their production was Shakespeare.
SHEIR: Let’s move to DC now. Marvin, I know you’ve been working on a history of dramatics at Howard University. That’s the historically Black college here in the District, so I want to spend some time talking about Howard, because I understand they did a lot of Shakespeare in the early part of the 20th century. But was Howard the only black university that was doing Shakespeare, or were others doing it, too?
MCALLISTER: Oh no, many different universities from Atlanta University to Spelman to Morgan State, a lot of HBCUs would do Shakespeare as a kind of graduation ceremony production. And so they would, you know, start rehearsing right before graduation and they would basically treat their families and other people who were involved with the institution to this elaborate Shakespearean production, and so that was one specific time that they would do Shakespeare. But also, a professor like Benjamin Brawley, who would later work at Howard University in the English department, he produced Shakespeare all over North Carolina, all throughout Georgia at the various HBCUs where he was a professor.
SHEIR: And what did he do at Howard?
MCALLISTER: Oh, at Howard, he actually did the first Shakespeare at Howard in 1911, The Merry Wives of Windsor, a play that’s not done very often. But yeah, he debuted, that was actually the first Shakespearean production at Howard, and he did it with the Howard College Dramatic Club and they actually performed it at the Howard Theatre in DC.
SHEIR: What about reviews of these plays? Is that something we could find today?
MCALLISTER: Oh yeah, so the Howard University papers had student reviewers who would, you know, review the production, and one student reviewer, in particular, felt that it was rather ambitious for the students, an amateur group of students, to do the production. This particular student reviewer wasn’t particularly overwhelmed or impressed by the production, but the reviewer was just happy that they were doing this kind of thing, because students at Howard, in the Howard College Dramatic Club, and the administrators and the professors all saw Shakespeare and Shakespearean production as a way to sort of become citizens of the world, as a way to sort of show their aspirational desires to be citizens of the world. And so, for the student reviewer and other students on campus, it was a status thing. It was a matter of cultural elevation to do Shakespeare and so they were just impressed that the students decided to do Shakespeare.
SHEIR: Moving outside of the university setting, what about Black community theater, for instance, the Washington Dramatic Club. Can you talk about them?
MCALLISTER: Yeah, so Anna Julia Cooper, a famous educator, a feminist, she started the Washington Dramatic Club. And one of her main directors was a guy named Nathanial Guy, and they did a really nice production of Merchant of Venice also, that debuted at the Howard Theatre. And when I say the Howard Theatre, I don’t mean a theater on Howard’s campus, it was a separate producing house called the Howard Theatre. And the Howard College Dramatic Club and the Washington Dramatic Club were kind of committed to the same things. They were committed to doing classical productions by known authors, and in both instances, it was about sort of this cultural elevation, this sort of society elite, DC colored elite society thing.
And so when they debuted a show, either the Washington Dramatic Club or the Howard College Dramatic Club at the Howard Theatre, the local paper, the Washington Bee, edited by W. Calvin Chase—they would market and advertise these events as society events. You know, not popular entertainment, not your regular old run-of-the-mill entertainment, but this is elite society events that you want to go to.
SHEIR: Ayanna, at this point there’s something I want to talk with you about. There was a forum held in 1981 at the Folger that taught you a great deal about the history of segregation in the theater in Washington, and also the impact of that segregation on theater performance at Howard. First, tell us about this forum at the Folger.
THOMPSON: So the forum was held in 1981, and the speakers were all professors who had been involved with the theater department at Howard and who had deep knowledge of the theater scene in DC in the 1930s and 40s. So it featured Anne Cooke Reid, Sterling Brown, Owen Dodson, and Todd Duncan, who all spoke very frankly about their experiences in DC theater.
SHEIR: We actually have a clip from that forum, going to play it here.
[CLIP from Folger forum, 1981:]
ANNE COOKE REID: I came to Howard to establish an academic department, an educational department that was to train undergraduates in the basics of the theater arts, in general. My philosophy was,that the theater belonged to the arts, and every art is built on its craft. Regardless of one’s genius, one learns his craft.
SHEIR: That was Dr. Anne Cooke. Ayanna, tell us what you learned from her from this forum. Didn’t she end up, for instance, taking a group of Howard students to perform in Europe? I know there’s a story there.
THOMPSON: Yeah, she tells an amazing story about the fact that because the National Theatre was closed, her students had no place to go see theater. But they happened to be putting on an Ibsen play, and a dignitary was in town and wanted to see theater, but there was no theater to see, so someone brought him to the Howard Theatre to see this play. And he was so impressed that he said, “Oh, you know, you should, we should get you to Europe.” And she said, “Okay,” thinking, you know, it was just a compliment that wouldn’t be followed through, but sure enough, they got to tour Norway, Sweden, Germany for three months. That’s pretty remarkable for an amateur group of Black American actors.
SHEIR: There was an important story that was told at this forum that relates to Black audiences at the National Theatre, which you’ve mentioned, and it has to do with Todd Duncan. He was the original Porgy in Porgy and Bess. Tell us that story.
THOMPSON: Yeah, so we know in, as I said, in the 1830s, that a seating section was reserved for persons of color, and somehow that dissipated and was done away with after the Civil War and Blacks couldn’t go to the theater. There were special moments when Blacks would be allowed in, so, certain performances, people could advocate for getting them in, and Todd Duncan decided that he was going to fight to get his Porgy and Bess with an integrated audience.
[CLIP from Folger forum, 1981:]
TODD DUNCAN: And so I shall ask you to quickly go back to 1936, and you are told that no Negroes will be allowed to come to see you. So what did you decide to do? To tuck your tail, and say, “I’ll go”? No, you didn’t.
THOMPSON: And so he sort of organized a potential strike. He threatened to strike and got a lot of backers.
[CLIP from Folger forum, 1981:]
DUNCAN: Eleanor Roosevelt. Ralph Bunche. Mary Bethune. Mordecai Johnson. Secretary Ickes. Those were some of the people.
THOMPSON: And, so the first offer that the National made was that on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, that Negroes could attend in the upper tier.
[CLIP from Folger forum, 1981:]
DUNCAN: We were told, I was told, at least, that Negroes could come and sit up there, on Wednesday afternoon matinee and Saturday matinee, and they knew that would please me. And I said, “No, that won’t do.”
THOMPSON: The second offer he got was that, okay, during every performance Negroes could attend, if they sat in the upper tier. And he turned that down. Well, Actors’ Equity got in touch with Duncan and threatened to fine him with a $10,000 fine if he didn’t accept this offer. They also said that he would not be allowed to act on any stage, if he didn’t, for two years, if he didn’t accept the offer. But he held out, because he knew this was the right thing to do. So finally, one week before the opening of Porgy and Bess at the National—meanwhile, this is after the Broadway debut, so this is the hot ticket, everyone wants to see it—the National finally caved in and said that the theater could be fully integrated. So Duncan, worrying that they weren’t going to follow through with this, bought up $200 worth of tickets, that were all over the place, so not just in the upper tiers, and gave them out to all of his Black friends in DC to ensure that it was going to be a fully integrated audience, and it was.
SHEIR: And what about the show that came in after Porgy and Bess?
THOMPSON: The show that came in after was…
[CLIP from Folger forum, 1981:]
DUNCAN: And something happened, somewhere, but Negroes were not allowed to buy any tickets for the next performance. It’s an insidious disease.
THOMPSON: In 1947, when Actors’ Equity was really putting pressure on the National to integrate, the National decided to close, instead of integrate. It said, “No, we would rather not have live theater in the nation’s capital than integrate our audiences.”
SHEIR: Wow. Well, talking about the mid-1930s, around that time there are two important African American Shakespeare productions I want you to talk about. Ayanna, the first, many of our listeners have no doubt heard about, the “voodoo Macbeth,” and the other is Paul Robeson’s performance of Othello. Let’s talk first about Macbeth. Tell us about that production.
THOMPSON: So, this is during the Depression and the Works Progress Administration was set up to ensure that people could work and so under that, the Federal Theater Project was set up and Orson Welles, a very young, white entrepreneurial director, who is 24 years old, somehow, and the story has been, you know, changed over time, but somehow came up with the idea that he wanted to stage Macbeth with an all-Black cast.
[CLIP from Lafayette Theatre production of Macbeth, 1936:]
JACK CARTER as MACBETH:
Arm, arm, and out!—
There is nor flying hence nor tarrying here.
I ‘gin to be aweary of the sun
And wish th’ estate o’ th’ world were now undone.—
Ring the alarum bell!
THOMPSON: And it was staged at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem. It opened in April 1936 and it is reported that over 10,000 people showed up for opening night. It had an all-Black cast. It featured a large drumming section that was sort of Haitian-influenced drumming, but was led by an African drummer from Sierra Leone.
[CLIP from Macbeth, 1936:]
MAURICE ELLIS as MACDUFF:
Are hired to bear their staves.
If thou beest slain, and with no stroke of mine,
My wife and children’s ghosts will haunt me still.
What is thy name?
THOMPSON: It was so popular that it then moved to Broadway for a while and then toured nationally.
SHEIR: Luckily that, from my understanding, it was a very big part of the Harlem Renaissance. I mean, right, you have these intellectuals writing letters about it, you have stories in the Black press.
THOMPSON: Yes, Carl Van Vechten famously said, “I finally know what Harlem wants, it’s Macbeth.” [LAUGHTER]
[CLIP from Macbeth, 1936:]
Macduff was from his mother’s womb
THREE WITCHES [LAUGHTER]
Accursèd be the tongue that tells me so
And be these juggling fiends no more believed.
CROWD: Hail, King!
Behold where stands
Th’ usurper’s cursèd head. The time is free.
All hail, Malcolm!
Peace, the charm’s wound up.
[APPLAUSE and MUSIC]
SHEIR: And what about the Black press, what did they say about it?
THOMPSON: It was the hottest ticket. I mean, everyone loved it. The Black intelligentsia was there. Langston Hughes famously had mixed feelings about it, wrote a poem called “Note on Commercial Theatre,” where he said, you’ve done stolen “my blues and gone,” “you put me in Macbeth” and all kinds of other plays. And so there were some mixed feelings that it was an appropriation of Black culture, but the audiences showed up.
SHEIR: And then Robeson’s Othello, that was in 1944, let’s talk about that.
THOMPSON: Well, actually, the first… his first showing of Othello was in 1930 in London and he received very mixed reviews then, but he came back to the US in 1942 and did a reprisal of the role in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and then it was invited to Broadway in 1943-44, and he was starring opposite Uta Hagen.
[CLIP from OTHELLO, 1943-44:]
PAUL ROBESON AS OTHELLO:
My very noble and approved good masters:
That I have ta’en away this old man’s daughter,
It is most true; true I have married her.
The very head and front of my offending
Hath this extent, no more.
THOMPSON: After the early, mixed reviews in 1930, the ’42, ’43, ’44 were, I mean, rave reviews. People wrote things like, “I’ve never experienced a truer Othello. I am finally seeing the play for the first time when you see it performed by a Black actor.”
[CLIP from OTHELLO, 1943-44:]
ROBESON as OTHELLO:
—Cassio, I love thee,
But nevermore be officer of mine.
Look if my gentle love be not raised up!
I’ll make thee an example.
UTA HAGEN as DESDEMONA:
What is the matter, dear?
All’s well now, sweeting.
Come away to bed.
Iago, look with care about the town
And silence those whom this vile brawl distracted.
Come, Desdemona. ‘Tis the soldier’s life
To have their balmy slumbers waked with strife.
SHEIR: And the production had a white Desdemona, which I think is amazing, considering what a big deal it was when, you know, in 1967, you’ve got Nancy Sinatra kissing Sammy Davis Jr. on TV, and that was 35 years later, so…
THOMPSON: Or, I mean, the opposite side is that in DC, you couldn’t sit next to someone in the theater. So no, it’s a huge deal, and Robeson said that he was very nervous doing this, that he, you know, tried in some ways to make it not be a sexy role, because he wanted people not to freak out about seeing him opposite Uta Hagen in this love affair.
[CLIP from OTHELLO, 1943-44:]
DESDEMONA (to her father):
Here’s my husband
And so much duty as my mother showed
To you, preferring you before her father,
So much I challenge that I may profess
Due to the Moor
THOMPSON: So he didn’t take it lightly either, and I think he thought of this as part of his, you know, kind of political awakening. This is the moment where he’s also entering in the Communist Party and I think he was really thinking about equality for all, for all workers, for all people of color, and this performance, I think, was a strategic turning point in his career.
SHEIR: Marvin, let’s go back to you now, and go back to Shakespeare at Howard University. Toni Morrison plays a role in this story, doesn’t she? When did she come to Howard?
MCALLISTER: Well, she came to Howard in the late 1940s as a student. I think she actually started out as a theater major, and so she comes into the picture because she played a role in a production of Richard III, which was directed by Owen Dodson and starred a professor at the university, James Butcher, as Richard, and at the time her name was Toni Wofford. And so, in the production, she played Queen Elizabeth, and the neat thing about this particular production, though… So they did the production around like 1950, 1951, but in June of 1951, they got the opportunity to do scenes from the production on TV. WMAL-TV, Channel 7 in DC, had this talent show called “The Washington Showcase.” And so, it was like a nine-minute show, and on the showcase, different contestants could compete in acting scenes and they could win cash prizes, they could be voted best actor or actress, and they could also, the ultimate prize was to win a Hollywood screen test.
And so what Howard did was, they took a couple scenes from their production of Richard III… I think, like Act 1, Scene 2, and Act 4, Scene 4, the scenes that featured the royal women, and they brought in Toni Wofford, or Toni Morrison, as Queen Elizabeth, Mary Nelson, and another actress named Juanita Tolson. Now, I don’t know if they won the contest, if they were voted best actress or actor or that kind of thing, but it was a really interesting experience for the students to film their Shakespearean scenes and the scenes were, of course, broadcast, June 25, 1951, at 10:30 on local television.
SHEIR: It’s about this time, Ayanna, that Joseph Papp is starting the New York Shakespeare Festival, and it’s there that African American actors performed Shakespeare in integrated casts for the first time. You’ve learned some things about Papp that are important to our story, so let’s talk about his time with the Actor’s Lab in California and how that set the stage for him to allow Black performers in New York City.
THOMPSON: So, after the war, Papp moved to Los Angeles and got involved with the Actor’s Lab, who were very instrumental in advocating for integration of the theaters, and he, in fact, wrote a little piece in one of the Los Angeles papers talking about like, “Hey, we need to fight for desegregation in all of our theaters, if art is going to thrive.” And then, when he moved to New York, he put out a call to actors and said, you know, if you want to act, come. And he was surprised that some Black actors showed up and he thought “Well, you know, let’s do it. Let’s just see what happens.” And from there, the New York Shakespeare Festival took off.
So in the beginning, his theory really was that it should be color-blind, but his ideas about race and performance morphed over the years and he, I think, ended up being very interested in color consciousness and thinking about, you know, you don’t have to ignore the race of the actor on the stage, that you should actually think about the way that we can make Shakespeare American by noticing all of the variety of colors and ethnicities on our stages.
SHEIR: Well, this actually leads really nicely to the next question, which I wanted to pose to Marvin, talking about color-blind casting, where basically you cast someone and you don’t pay any attention to their race. In another segment we did on this subject, we talked about August Wilson’s opposition to color-blind casting in the 1980s, you know, how he thought African American performers should forget about doing Shakespeare and just do plays written by Black playwrights. Considering that the only Black Shakespeare characters are Aaron the Moor and Othello, I guess, I am wondering, Marvin, whether Wilson’s sentiment cropped up only in the 1980s, or did we see this strain cropping up in earlier years as well?
MCALLISTER: Actually, it crops up earlier, but, you know, in a different sort of way. Thomas Montgomery Gregory, who was the creator of a dramatic arts program within the English Department at Howard, he learned some lessons from folk theater pioneers like Frederick Koch at University of North Carolina and also a drama innovator, George Baker out at Harvard, he learned that the real way for students, young students, artists, to grow was to develop dramas that were rooted in their own specific soil. So, Thomas Montgomery Gregory felt that Negro artists, playwrights, and actors and directors needed to generate material by them and about them. But not necessarily just by them. Like, you could have Negro folk play by a white writer, like Eugene O’Neill, and that would further these artists as performers but also as citizens of the world.
And so Thomas Montgomery Gregory started moving in that direction of, “We need Negro plays,” but then it was picked up by Alain Locke, famous Howard philosophy professor, and also advisor to the Howard Players, which was started in 1919. And he actually took time to write an article, which was published in Crisis magazine in 1922, where he had just come back from a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, and he was talking about Shakespeare in this article. And he made the case that Shakespeare is great for “piercing the human heart” with emotion, but he felt that Shakespeare was limited in terms of what Shakespeare could do with ideas, in particular what he felt was that Negro artists needed “ideas” to generate “understanding and respect” from the rest of the world, so they could truly be respected.
And so he felt that those ideas were lacking in Shakespeare, and so he chastised actually the Howard Players, and the Howard Dramatic Arts Program, for focusing too much on white writers, in maybe classical theater and Shakespeare, and he challenged them to find their own art rooted in their own native Negro “soil.” And so those were two examples of a similar sentiment to August Wilson in the 1910s and 1920s.
SHEIR: But then, contrary to what August Wilson would say, we have people like Beanie Butcher and Cooke, who we heard from before, Owen Dodson. They felt like you should be able to do any kind of character, right?
MCALLISTER: Right, and that idea of doing world theater goes back to Ben Brawley, then Thomas Montgomery Gregory and Cooke, Owen Dodson, and Butcher all continued that. The idea here is that you are training young Black actors to be citizens of the world, who can do anything. Now, they can do the stereotypical Black roles that they might be offered in the 1930s, they can do that, but if you want to take that challenge like, you know, say, a Joseph Papp, and hire them to do Shakespeare, they better be ready to do that, too. And so that was the kind of philosophy for the training at Howard going back to the 1910s. You should be able to do anything.
SHEIR: But then what about the 60s, when we had sort of the Black Power movement, how did that affect things?
MCALLISTER: Oh, wow, so when you started to have the student protests in 1964 on campus, you had students coming in and shutting down classes, shutting down productions and making the clear demand that we want a Black curriculum, we want Black plays, we want professors like Owen Dodson and Glenda Dickerson, when she was there, and James Butcher. We want you all to stop doing Shakespeare, stop doing Arthur Miller, we want you to do LeRoi Jones / Baraka, we want you to do Ed Bullins, we want you to do stuff that is directly about us.
MCALLISTER: Now, Howard had been doing that all the time. I mean, they debuted a couple of shows by James Baldwin. But the Black militants on campus were like, “We just want that.” For them, doing Shakespeare was sort of diluting the purpose of what they felt a Black university should be. It should be doing Baldwin, Baraka, Bullins, that kind of work exclusively.
SHEIR: Ayanna, as we close, there’s something you wrote that I want to read here, and I want to ask you both about it. You were writing about whether or not it was acceptable to do a blackface Othello in the 21st century, and this is what you wrote:
The construction of Shakespeare (a man who wrote plays in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for white men who performed in blackface and cross dressed) as the universal Bard (the poet who speaks for all ages) exemplifies a cultural desire for historical unity, cohesion, and organization. This, of course, is just simply a fantasy.
So, considering that, what is there to be learned with regard to race in America by looking at African American Shakespeare performance, particularly during this period that we’ve been talking about, when segregation was so severe?
THOMPSON: I think it’s a mixed story, right? I mean, so there’s some standout performances and model Negroes, like Paul Robeson, who get to be the stars, but then there’s a lot of stories of people who only ever get to play Othello, or the Black women who only ever get to play servant roles, so I think even today it’s still a mixed bag. Many Black actors debate whether or not the pinnacle of their career should be playing Othello or why they don’t get to play Hamlet, so we’d like Shakespeare to be universal and for everyone, and I think it should be for everyone, but that’s not always the way it’s practiced.
SHEIR: Marvin, what do you think?
MCALLISTER: I think, going along with that, I think the good sort of litmus test is taking say, Othello in the roles of Iago and Othello, and you look at actors who have played both Iago and Othello, somebody like Andre Braugher, and when you hear them talk about that, like Ayanna was alluding to, there’s that feeling that I don’t want to be limited by a role in some ways that’s already limited.
Othello is a staged African creation of William Shakespeare. That role has all of its pretty language, it has all of its different dynamics to it, but that role, compared to a play or role like Iago, is very different, and I think a lot of young actors like Andre Braugher, or used to be young actors like Andre Braugher, they salivate with the idea of having the elasticity of a Hamlet, of an Iago, of even, say, in Titus Andronicus, a Titus, you know, and I think that in some ways they realize there are certain limitations and brakes on a character like Othello, and young actors don’t want to be limited like that.
THOMPSON: And you know what’s fascinating is the fact that Hugh Quarshie, who is a really well respected, classically trained Black actor, gave a famous speech called “Second Thoughts about Othello” in which he said, “You know what? This is a role that’s not worth playing. It’s so racist in its construction that I don’t want to play it anymore. I don’t want to be limited by that narrative,” and he gave that speech in 1998, and it was just announced that he’s playing Othello next year, in 2015, so there you go. Even when you know the limitations, sometimes you can get trapped in them.
SHEIR: Thank you so much, both of you, for taking the time to talk with me.
THOMPSON: Thank you.
MCALLISTER: Thank you.
WITMORE: Ayanna Thompson is a professor of English at George Washington University in Washington, DC. She is also a trustee of the Shakespeare Association of American. Marvin McAllister is associate professor of African American studies at the University of South Carolina.
“Our Own Voices with Our Own Tongues” was recorded and produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington.
We have a number of people to thank for their assistance in making the podcast possible: Dr. James Hatch, co-author with the late Errol Hill of A History of African American Theatre; Connie Winston; Anthony Hill and Doug Barnett, co-authors of The Historical Dictionary of African American Theater, and Jobie Sprinkle and Tena Simmons at radio station WFAE in Charlotte, North Carolina.
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. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I am Folger Director Michael Witmore.