What Black Playwrights Taught Me About Shakespeare

In “An Octoroon,” the character BJJ laments the plight of being a black playwright.

“I can’t even wipe my ass without someone trying to accuse me of deconstructing the race problem in America,” she muses in the play by Obie Award winner Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.

Soon after, an actor playing Dion Boucicault walks in on a drunken rant. Boucicault is a 19th-century Irishman who wrote “The Octoroon,” the play on which Jacobs-Jenkins’ work is based.

“You don’t even know who I am,” he says, “a world-famous playwright.” He goes on to point out that every “10 seconds you’re resurrecting someone’s Shakespearean bullshit.”

While Boucicault isn’t the nicest or most socially conscious messenger, he (and Jacobs-Jenkins) have a point. Every year when the American Theater releases its list of the 10 most produced plays of the season and the top 20 most produced playwrights of the season, William Shakespeare is “left out” because he always comes out on top.

Certainly neither Shakespeare nor Boucicault faced the same expectations that BJJ describes in his opening monologue. Still, Shakespeare scholars and movements are currently bringing Shakespeare’s plays into conversation with systemic racial inequality in America. If theater is, as playwrights like Jacobs-Jenkins hope, a space to catalyze political change and entertain, what role, if any, does Shakespeare’s century-old canon play in theater’s relationship to racial justice movements today? ? How might we read, produce, and perform Shakespeare’s plays in ways that center black lives?

Jacobs-Jenkins attends FX's "apparent" Premiere event at Avalon Hollywood & Bardot in December in Los Angeles.
Jacobs-Jenkins attends the premiere of FX’s “Kindred” at Avalon Hollywood & Bardot in December in Los Angeles.

Leon Bennett via Getty Images

For the past two years, I have been exploring answers to these questions at William & Mary in my “Black Lives in Shakespeare” course. The class pairs five of his plays with works by contemporary black playwrights whose plays think very specifically about transformative racial change. My students and I read these plays alongside black scholars to explore the question of Shakespeare’s continuing relevance to “everything you learn from the theater,” as Jacobs-Jenkins puts it in the aforementioned monologue: “Sympathy ? Compassion? Understanding?”

Black theater artists are—and have been for centuries—“helping Shakespeare speak,” so putting contemporary plays related to racial justice in direct conversation with Shakespeare in our classrooms, theaters, and conversations continues that work.

The most obvious way to bring black playwrights into conversation with Shakespeare is to produce and teach adaptations. In my “Black Lives in Shakespeare” and “Black Playwrights” courses, I teach a unit on adaptations of “Othello” featuring Keith Hamilton Cobb’s “American Moor” and Toni Morrison’s “Desdemona.” As a point of departure, for example, Morrison’s play takes Desdemona’s reference to her handmaiden mother, Barbary – a name meaning “foreigner” and suggesting the coast of North Africa – and the song of the willow that died singing as powerful suggestions of a hovering ghost. on the margins of “Othello”. This ghost participates in a legacy of derogatory icons of black women, the “mommy” trope in particular, and the myth of a black maid who wholeheartedly cares for her master’s children.

Rokia Traoré performing in "Desdemona" in Germany in 2011.
Rokia Traoré performing in “Desdemona” in Germany in 2011.

Lieberenz/ullstein images via Getty Images

“Myths are more than made-up stories,” says scholar and activist Dorothy Roberts. “They are also strongly held beliefs that represent and attempt to explain what we perceive to be the truth. They can become more believable than reality, holding up even in the face of stagnant statistics and rational arguments to the contrary.”

Shakespeare’s canon is full of these myths and figures, who often seem “more believable than real,” and contemporary plays can help us see the work these figures do in our cultural imagination. “Desdemona” takes this myth and transforms it to illuminate a character often marginalized in stage productions of “Othello” – Barbary, whom Morrison renames Sa’ran.

In my scholarship and teaching, I’m interested in attending to ghosts like Barbary in Shakespeare, and teaching it alongside works by black playwrights with more thematic overlap, as opposed to direct adaptations, helps me do that.

In teaching “The Merchant of Venice” with “Venus” by Suzan-Lori Parks, center the figure of an abused and pregnant black woman, passed from man to man, from clown to clown, a figure at the heart of “Venus” . which makes only a brief appearance in Shakespeare’s play. Parks’ work paints a picture of a fictional Sarah Baartman consumed by white society, handed down from one abuser to another. A “Mother Showman” steals Venus Hottentot’s tips after performing in freak shows. A doctor reads a catalog of his body parts during intermission, foreshadowing the experiments to come. Despite being studied by doctors in the service of gynecological knowledge, Baartman is forced to abort two children she conceives with Baron Docteur (Parks’ nod to Georges Cuvier, a French scientist whose work reinforced scientific racism). Even the “Negro Resurrectionist” who accompanies Venus through time betrays her in the final scenes.

“The possibilities for putting black playwrights in conversation with Shakespeare are truly endless.”

Similarly, in an exchange often cut from productions of “The Merchant of Venice,” Lorenzo, Shylock’s new Christian son-in-law, enters and interrupts an exchange between his wife, Jessica, who recently converted from Judaism to Christianity , and Launcelot, the clown, who questions this conversion. Jessica informs her husband of this line of questioning, and Lorenzo tells Launcelot that he has nothing to say to his wife that she will find no “mercy…in heaven” since Launcelot himself has impregnated a black woman

“I will answer this better to the Commonwealth than to rising from the belly of the negro; the Moor is pregnant with you, Lancelot,” warns Lorenzo.

“It is very important that the Moor must be more than right; but if she be less than an honest woman, indeed she is more than I take her,” replies Launcelot.

Centering this pregnant woman, the black woman, who seems to be marginal in “The Merchant of Venice”, means a radical writing of the work and what theater scholars and professionals have focused on. In one of the only extended accounts of this black woman in Shakespearean scholarship, Kim Hall argues that “it may be that this pregnant black woman, unheard, nameless, and invisible (at least to critics) is a silent symbol for the economy and the racial politics of “The Merchant of Venice.” “And yet this exchange is often ignored in classrooms, left out of productions. However, bringing Shakespeare into conversation with Parks emphasizes “the Moor with the boy.” While she may be “unheard, unnamed, and unseen” in the world of the play, like Parks’ Venus, she need not be marginalized in our world today.

The possibilities for putting black playwrights in conversation with Shakespeare are truly endless: Jeremy O. Harris’ “Slave Play” invented “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy.” It is described as “a radical therapy designed to help black couples regain intimacy with white partners from whom they no longer derive sexual pleasure.” This idea makes the relationships between black men and white women in “Othello” and “Titus Andronicus” read very differently.

Harris’s play invites us to imagine classroom productions and discussions that hesitate to take Othello and Desdemona’s love at face value, and to consider Desdemona’s insistent pleas to go to bed as a sign of possible fetishization of Othello’s sexuality.

When I read “Slave Play” in conversation with “Othello”, I wonder if Desdemona feels sorry for Othello because of the “dangers”. [he] had happened.” I think more deeply about Tamora’s “insatiable and lustful” desire for Aaron the Moor in “Titus Andronicus.” Often in American literature, as Morrison teaches us in “Playing in the Dark” (1992), interracial relationships represent little more than “a bout of jungle fever.” Reading Harris in conversation with Shakespeare, it becomes clear how crucial it is to consider these historical touches over time. (I love the idea of ​​falling in love -me for the stories they tell, and I love Tamora’s imagined “golden dream” with Aaron after her “pastimes are over.” These readings do not rule out alternative interpretations of the play; inform them .)

I also teach “Fairview” by Jackie Sibblies Drury alongside “Titus Andronicus”. Although the plays were written centuries apart and are very different, the characters Aaron and Keisha struggle against the narratives assigned to them by white society. Aaron is far from a hero in “Titus Andronicus”: he plants the seeds for Lavinia’s rape, murders a nurse, cuts off Titus’ son’s hands and sends them back. But this violence responds to the “walls of whitewash” that enslave him, that work to mold his son, whom he loves, into a “disgusting toad”. Aaron resists the narratives that have been told about him; grabs them and turns them on their heads.

Drury poses for a portrait in Brooklyn, New York on March 14, 2019.
Drury poses for a portrait in Brooklyn, New York on March 14, 2019.

Mark Abramson / The Washington Post via Getty Images

“Is black such a basic shade?” Aaron asks the nurse who describes his son as a “joyless, dreary, black, dreary affair,” “coal black is better than another shade.” In his closing monologue, Aaron speaks my favorite line of the play: “Why should anger be dumb and fury dumb? … I am not a child.”

Likewise, Keisha finds herself trapped in the narratives white people have told about her, those who have told her “all the stories.” [she has] never heard of.” That she will get pregnant as a teenager, that her father is a cheater and gambler on the verge of losing the house, that her mother is on drugs. None of this is true, but Keisha finds herself unable to get out from under these stories until the end of the play, when he rejects Suze as a grandmother, refusing her suffocating care.

“I want to take care of the baby,” Suze demands, to which Keisha replies, “There’s no baby.”

Drury’s capitalization of this statement emphasizes that Keisha is not pregnant, but also that, like Aaron, Keisha is not a baby: she does not need Suze’s “strong self,” “strong eyes,” and “guilt” to take care “Should I keep talking to them,” he asks the audience, referring to the play’s white viewers, “only to them until I’ve exhausted every word?”

It’s probably true that black playwrights often feel the same way about being in conversation with Shakespeare, his presence seemingly inescapable. But these works that I assign alongside Shakespeare place extraordinary faith in their respective audiences. They generate transformative conversations.

“We can stop racism in the theater and in our lives if we can make the space and time to learn and listen,” notes Hall in his introduction to “American Moor.”

It is difficult to do this space and time, however, if we do not listen to what black voices tell us about Shakespeare’s works, directly or indirectly. This is what contemporary black playwrights have taught me: that Shakespeare is somehow only so good when he speaks in this “American way,” as Cobb writes in “American Moor.”

These conceptual connections are not always obvious, and bringing these plays into conversation across centuries and landscapes is not easy. But as Cobb’s actor tells the audience, “God knows I ain’t easy… but no future worth having ever had.”

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