“I’m not saying Shakespeare is an anti-black racist. But…’ – the festival tackles an incendiary problem

When Farah Karim-Cooper first approached her patrons at Shakespeare’s Globe with the idea of ​​hosting a festival on Shakespeare and race, she had the distinct feeling that it was not seen as a topic. urgent. In the four years since, the issue has proven not only urgent but incendiary. Karim-Cooper — and the Globe — have faced vicious social media abuse and trolling to schedule anti-racism events. Further on, the matter became even more incendiary: earlier this month, the artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival received death threats for programming the bard’s work with references to slavery, and for its cast of women and non-binary actors. The accusation of sacrilege to Shakespeare’s seemingly sacred texts has never been more contested, it seems, and clearly has high stakes.

This first Globe Festival in 2018 orchestrated by Karim-Cooper, Professor of Shakespearian Studies at King’s College London and Co-Director of Education at The Globe, raised so many questions and conversations – from casting issues to the opening of the text to children. from diverse backgrounds – that it has become an annual event.

Now in its fourth year, the Shakespeare and Race festival, launched on Friday, brings together actors, scholars, students and artistic directors for performance discussions, poetry readings, workshops and the launch of a partnership of research with King’s College London, which aims to investigate the pipeline of Shakespeare studies for scholars of color.

“We had wonderful white scholars who wrote popular Shakespeare books and they give you that nostalgic bard,” says Karim-Cooper. “But he offers a Shakespeare that doesn’t seem to be for everyone. I don’t need everyone to like Shakespeare, but I think people should feel entitled to it if they want to. Think of the British class and its racial diversity. You don’t get all the flesh of Shakespeare if you read it through a lens – and the lens through which everyone was trained to read it is a white-centric lens.

This festival strives to broaden that focus, but its trajectory has been bumpy: when Karim-Cooper tried to assemble a panel of scholars of Shakespeare’s color in Britain four years ago, she discovered that there were hardly any and had to reach the United States. . Some people in the early years of the festival wrote to him in confusion because “they thought there was no race in Shakespeare’s time.”

The response to anti-racism webinars regarding teaching and performing Shakespeare in 2021 has been more aggressive. Karim-Cooper and the Globe both received horrible trolling on Twitter, with Karim-Cooper feeling like she was “in some way assaulting Shakespeare and the good name of the canon”.

Akiya Henry, bottom left, in the role of Miranda at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, London, production of The Tempest.

‘Intimidating, especially for actors of the global majority’… Akiya Henry, bottom left, as Miranda at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, London, production of The Tempest. Photography: Alastair Muir/Shutterstock

There have been gains since, and important questions around the understanding and staging of Shakespeare are on the agenda this year. For Akiya Henry, an actor who has worked with the RSC and recently played Lady Macduff in Yaël Farber’s production of The Tragedy of Macbeth, this festival is “essential in inspiring us to change our relationship with Shakespeare”.

The pieces, she says, are for everyone – if we let it. Her own passion for Shakespeare began at school, when she fell in love with verse, but she realizes that this is not the experience of all children, or even of all actors. “Being cast in a Shakespeare production can be daunting, especially for world-class actors,” she says. “We think of Mark Rylance and Judi Dench and everyone who speaks the text, and we feel that it has to be spoken in a specific way. But I realized that it was about engaging in the Once you have that, you can unlock the text and find ways to connect.

Casting and color blindness is another issue raised over the years at the festival. Cameron Knight, actor, associate professor and head of acting programming at Rutgers University in New Jersey, who is part of this year’s festival, thinks the colorblind cast is no longer viable: “What it fact is that it erases the identity of someone you’ve hired.To have true diversity, you have to make room for the experience of the person doing it.

For Henry too, the actors attach themselves to the characters and that includes their heritage. ” At one point [the director] must identify [people of colour] in the room and recognize that their experience is different. If I’m going to a rehearsal room, if it’s predominantly white, I need you to know that I’m a black woman and sometimes my relationship to this work will be somewhat different.

She says casting “has to be part of a bigger picture rather than the idea of ​​diversity for optical reasons or the idea that it would just be ‘cool’ to cast a black actor in a certain role. So the question is, ‘How does this diversity serve the truth of this story, and how does this story serve me as an actor in this space?’ the room” when it comes to issues of race, both in the cast and in the interpretation of the story and the character.

We do a lot of colorblind reading too, with Shakespeare, adds Karim-Cooper. “There are racist replies. I’m not saying Shakespeare is an anti-black racist. But teachers tend to skirt these lines because they don’t even notice them. One example is the recurring use of the word “Ethiopia”, a racial pejorative in Shakespeare’s day that appears in plays such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Lysander uses it to refer to the complexion of Hermia.

Henry doesn’t think the text should necessarily be “cleaned up” or edited out of such problematic words, but subverted so that they expose the biases – casual, unconscious or otherwise – in our world today. However, she says, such approaches can only happen if directors and actors have open conversations about race in the rehearsal room.

Iqbal Khan.

“Hierarchies of authority and exclusion”… Iqbal Khan. Photograph: Bradley Collyer/PA

Iqbal Khan, associate director of the Birmingham Rep, also participates in the Globe festival. His first encounters with Shakespeare were positive, but he gradually felt distanced when he saw how narrowly they were interpreted by the world around him: “I remember, when I was maybe eight , to record scenes from Shakespeare with my brothers – Macbeth, Othello, Lear. I imagined the characters were all versions of me, regardless of age, race, or gender. That changed dramatically when I first saw the pieces on TV and heard them on recordings. Thus began a permanent dislocation between what this child saw as his truth and the imposing world of hierarchies of authority and exclusion.

His engagement with Shakespeare as an actor and director has been marked by considerations around race, challenges to power and questions of identity: Prospero’s sense of isolation and exile in The Tempest, for example , and the importance of casting a black central actor in Othello who is not playing a self-loathing black character but a man abandoned in a white world. Henry agrees: Telling Othello’s story through a dark lens makes us see it as a play about a black man living in a predominantly white society and, she says, “that’s what every single person black lives in Western culture”.

Knight directed a production of The Tempest featuring African American Prospero and transgender Trinculo and Ariel, staged at the Utah Shakespeare Festival this year. Adjustments were made so that the production “still tells the story beautifully but also acknowledges the experience of the people making the show”. Was it well received by the public? Yes, he said: it sparked conversation and inspired a lot of young people. But he is painfully aware of serious resistance in other quarters.

The charge against those who dare to reinvent and reinterpret Shakespeare is gross interference with and destruction of the original text. But, underlines Karim-Cooper, there is is not a single original text, only folios and quartos. For Khan, it’s about actively pushing urgent and radical interpretations. We must “allow ourselves to step in – to use these great problematic texts to explore the world now. The texts will survive our interventions. They are messy and vital. There is no privileged perspective in these works, no Shakespeare-shaped hole. We all have a permit.

The 2022 Shakespeare and Race festival runs from October 28 to November 5.

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