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July 08, 2018

Ira Aldridge, 2017: The Countown continued

Ira Aldridge: Written Out of History

‘Ira was relentless. He didn’t take no for an answer and he never, ever gave up. After spending so long absent from our artistic history, it is fitting and just that we celebrate him now.’

(Adrian Lester, who played Ira Aldridge in Lolita Chakrabarti’s play Red Velvet)

On the 150th anniversary of his death, the Multicultural Shakespeare Project, Shakespeare’s Globe and Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre joined forces to help celebrate the life of pioneering black actor, Ira Aldridge.

How much do we know about the man noted for being the first black actor to play Othello? Until recently, not a great deal. In fact Professor Tony Howard of the University of Warwick notes, ‘his tragedy was that so soon after his death he was written out of history; his triumph is that all over the world he is being written back in now, with a vengeance.’

New discoveries by scholars and biographers such as Bernth Lindfors and Martin Hoyles coupled with creative projects such as the America tour of Red Velvet and Tony Howard’s Against Prejudice have brought Ira’s story to life again in this significant year.

Ira was born in July 1807 in New York and sailed for Britain in 1825 to escape racism. Soon after his arrival he scored his first theatrical successes in the ‘minor’ Royalty and Royal Coburg Theatres in South London.

Between 1826-27 he toured English regional theatres with great success, commenting in 1828 that, ‘he might have feared that, unknown and unfriended, he had little claim to public notice – did he not feel that being a foreigner and a stranger are universal passports to British sympathy.’

In the spring of 1828, spurred on by this success (though, astonishingly, at a time when Britain’s colonies and thousands of British investors still depended on slavery) he became the manager of the Coventry Theatre (Theatre Royal) at the modest age of 20. In his short but successful season at the theatre he used melodrama, music and Shakespeare to challenge racist stereotypes.

During the years after Ira’s time in Coventry he toured Britain as a successful actor with a strong Shakespearean repertoire. He also performed songs and poems, like the anti-slavery poem written for him by Warwickshire author James Bisset. This poem, which makes an explicit link between slavery and the new British industries that manufactured the everyday machinery of slavery, has been mentioned in biographies for decades but has never surfaced until now. We are delighted that it will be performed as part of the Against Prejudice event.

Despite vicious attacks from the press when he performed at Covent Garden Theatre, Ira continued his national tour and extended his reach internationally between 1852 and 1867. Considering the significance of this time in Ira’s life, Adrian Lester comments, ‘he took a horse and carriage to tour places that the railroad hadn’t been built to reach yet, being lauded and allowed to play anywhere but at home’.

Ira’s final accolade was to be the first ever British actor to be knighted. In August 1867, at a time when he was about to return to the USA after Civil War and the abolition of slavery, Ira died in Łódź, Poland, at the age of 60.

Shakespeare's Gobe comments: 'It is a privilege for Shakespeare’s Globe to be hosting Against Prejudice this season, to honour a man about whom Tony Howard notes, ‘Artists and audiences have responded passionately to the story of his life and his struggles to be heard.’ Reflecting on his work on the project, he adds, ‘time and time again I’ve been asked, ‘Why did nobody tell me this before?’

Against Prejudice: A celebration of Ira Aldridge in the candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse - Tuesday September 19 2017 at 7.00pm. The evening featured a staged reading of Professor Tony Howard’s drama-documentary about Ira’s life as a theatre manager, a panel discussion led by historian David Olusoga about his legacy and a performance from vocalist Una May and Coventry Belgrade’s Black Youth Theatre. The evening also featured three leading actors who have played Ira in biographical plays and films about him: Ray Fearon, Joseph Marcell and Joseph Mydell

GUEST OF HONOUR: Earl Cameron, days after his 100th birthday. Mr. Cameron was voice-trained by Amanda, Ira Aldridge's daughter.


June 16, 2015

Two good days, one good Knight by Delia Jarrett–Macaulay

On Tuesday, 2 June, Act for Change, the campaign for better representation in the performing arts and film, welcomed a huge crowd at the National Theatre. Chaired by Liberty’s Shami Chakrabati, this event brought together women, Black, Asian and minority ethnic actors and directors, and actors and directors with disabilities to review their professional situation through debate and by challenging the NT’s recently appointed director, Rufus Norris. I recognised very few people in the audience although the panel, consisting of Adrian Lester, Jenny Sealey, Phyllida Lloyd, Mark Lawson, Chris Bryant MP and Cush Jumbo was comfortingly familiar. The newness of the faces among the audience members reminded me that each generation finds itself campaigning for equality in representation in spite of the efforts of their predecessors.

At one point in the discussion, Adrian Lester commented on the lack of formal structures in the late 1980s, when he graduated from drama school, through which he and other black performers could challenge the status quo. Listening to him, I recalled that as the 1980s slipped away, the Black Theatre Forum was acting as the ‘voice’ of the sector, representing the considerable range of companies existing then: The Black Theatre Co-op, Carib Theatre, Double Edge, Black Mime Theatre and, of particular interest to me as a future employer, The African Players. The sector had strength in numbers, experienced practitioners and experimenters, fresh from college. Although a handful of those companies survived the twentieth century culls – Talawa and Tara Arts being the most distinguished and well resourced; many, of course have long since ceased to exist.

But the 2 June event was a good one. Professional, slick, serious and packed. The employment statistics, a weekend snapshot revealing how few women, BAME people and people with disabilities were engaged both on and off-stage were shown at the very beginning. The day closed with their accounts and reflections, stories that have been told and have to be told again about discrimination, lack of opportunity, aspiration and empowerment.

Jenny Sealey, the Artistic Director of Graeae, who spoke eloquently and wittily at the Act for Change event, had also joined the RSC panel for ‘Are the arts still ‘male, pale and stale’? on May 17, in Stratford. The RSC has also recently advertised for staff to work on access issues to bring a wider audience to its Stratford centre of excellence. Is change afoot? Perhaps. I hope that Peter Bazalgette’s December speech, a Christmas-time push for better opportunities for black and minority people is being heard by our major theatres. With changes to programming and employment, things should steadily improve and campaigning groups such as Act for Change become redundant.

I was glad to see some black teenagers in the audience for the RSC’s Othello this weekend. They came on their own, without parents and teachers, and seemed to be excited to be there. I couldn’t help thinking that we need more assertive moves to retain their interest and be sure they return. Focused marketing and considered casting will always make a difference. Iqbal Khan’s Othello, perhaps their first outing to the RSC, was an excellent starting point for them.

Lenny Henry’s introduction to Shakespeare, well documented in the press and on screen, has been mentioned to me by many people during my fellowship. He is now to be ‘Sir Lenny’, thanks to his charity work and for his services to the arts. Well done, Good Knight! Act for change, I’m sure, is right behind you.


May 12, 2015

Reflections on BBAS's Who Owns Shakespeare? panel – 29 April 2015

Q).Who owns Shakespeare? A). Everyone

by Daniel Cope

Who Owns Shakespeare panel

Members of the "Who Owns Shakespeare?" panel

Who Owns Shakespeare? was held on 29 April at Warwick Arts Centre and as I ambled into the lecture theatre I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I’m in my final year studying English Literature and I’ve got an exam on Shakespeare coming up so I thought this would be an ample revision opportunity. What followed was some of the most interesting two hours of my life.

We were quickly introduced to two clips of Romeo and Juliet in Harlem(dir. Aleta Chappelle) and H4(dir: Paul Quinn) and then welcomed a panel consisting of actors Paterson Joseph and Nicholas Bailey alongside the stars of the two productions Jasmine Carmichael (Juliet) and Amad Jackson (Prince Harry). Also joining them was Jatinder Verma [artistic director of Tara Arts] and Aleta Chappelle. After a hearty round of applause the panel delved into a discussion of the two films and their understanding of Black and Asian Shakespeare.

The panel met with unanimous agreement that the medium of film is extraordinarily evocative in reaching out to young people. Jasmine Carmichael fondly remembered when the fight scene between Tybalt and Romeo was filmed on a basketball court, they generated enthusiastic interest from local children. Jasmine reflected how excited the children were to see these characters brought to live in their community with some girls even approaching her about how they too would like to play Juliet. This affectionate anecdote demonstrated just how important it is to engage women of colour with Shakespeare. The great Shakespeare characters such as Lady Macbeth, Rosalind, or Juliet herself should not be limited to the pervasive (and in this case, toxic) idea of ‘Englishness’. Shakespeare’s universal themes of love, hope, loss and many more can only continue to fly if they are placed globally in different situations and scenarios. You can’t “hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature” if you limit a text to its original playing conditions. The discussion pointed out many times that Shakespeare’s plays take place across the globe from Denmark, to Rome and Italy. Shakespeare echoes globally and that must never be forgotten.

For me the clearest issue that arose during the discussion was that of Shakespeare’s accessibility, particularly for young people. Amad Jackson voiced concerns about Shakespeare performances just being limited to black tights and how this has a limited resonance with younger people just beginning to engage with Shakespeare. Paterson Joseph agreed by stating that Shakespeare is a “living” playwright. I can’t seem to forget this comment because it seems obvious when you begin to unpack it. The universality of Shakespeare’s text continues not just because audiences are interested in early modern drama (although many of us are!) but because there is something intrinsically probing about the issues he explores. Members of the audience brought up that there was a recent production of Romeo and Juliet (dir. Nawar Bulbul) over Skype in Syria against the backdrop of a civil war which helped children caught up within the conflict articulate their feelings in performance. If this is the case, then surely Shakespeare is still doing something right?

I’m going to train to teach in a secondary school in September so I wanted to ask what the panel had to say about the teaching of Shakespeare and how to get past the initial fear of the complexity of the text. Paterson Joseph jumped straight in to confess that he feels accent is what lifts language and that the idea that Received Pronunciation is the only way to play the language is a nonsensical idea. The [retired] voice director of the RSC, Cicely Berry, joined in from the audience and agreed saying that historically some of the performing accents would have been more akin to the Brummie accent (this made me, a born Brummie, very happy!)

I left the auditorium richer. Not only am I going to look into the wealth of Black and Asian Shakespeare productions on offer but I feel like I had the chance to listen some of the most exciting talent in theatre and film. These actors and directors deeply care about Shakespeare as a medium through which real social change and young people’s engagement can be achieved. I came in thinking that I’d probably get some good revision pointers and I left filled to the brim with innovative ideas about accessibility, representation and the affirmation that Shakespeare really is owned by everyone and should continue to be so.



March 31, 2015

Hamlet around the world

I’m on tour with Shakespeare’s Globe at the moment, taking Hamlet to every nation on this earth over two years and we are currently 80 countries in. We are a multi heritage company, and I’m really proud to be a part of this.

globe_hamlet.png



Amanda Wilkin, a member of the Globe's world Hamlet tour, writes to us:


In Finland I remember meeting a dual heritage actress after the show, and she commented that it’s the first time she’s seen such a diverse company onstage and that it meant so much to her.

People comment positively on this aspect of our show all the time. And, I think that it’s great that wherever we go in the world, people may see someone onstage who looks a little bit like them. Hopefully this says that Shakespeare is for everyone, not only one kind of person.

Sometimes, however it’s been interesting to learn that someone has been confused by the casting. I was asked in Tunisia by a young woman what we were trying to say in the production by casting a Black actor as Hamlet.

My response was that simply, any person of any colour can feel the emotions and wrestle with his destiny like Hamlet in the play.

I’m having an incredible time, and feel very lucky to be on this journey.


March 24, 2014

Paul Prescott on West Coast casting

Follow-up to SPREADING THE WORD by Tony Howard from The bba shakespeare blog

Thanks Tony. Worth also linking to this piece on 'casting for equity'?:
http://sfshakes.wordpress.com/2013/08/16/holding-the-mirror-up-to-nature-casting-shakespeare-for-todays-audiences/
Based on our experience at the Shakespeare Theatre Association conference in January, it would seem that a lot of most interesting casting is happening on west coast...

Paul Prescott, Shakespeare on the Road. http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/


SPREADING THE WORD by Tony Howard

Writing about web page http://theconversation.com/we-need-more-racial-diversity-on-the-stage-both-sides-of-the-pond-22409

BBAS has been asked by the Anglo-Australian online academic forum The Conversation to comment on the opportunities, or lack of them, for non-white performers. Here's my contribution. Excuse the 'I' - it's very much 'we'. Please join in.

We need more racial diversity on the stage both sides of the pond

In 1825 the African-American actor Ira Aldridge came to London in The Slave’s Revenge.

Before Abolition, he had no hopes of working on the stage at home, but he became one of the most popular Shakespearean performers in Europe and was honoured by monarchs. A century later, Paul Robeson played Othello in London because racism made it impossible in the USA. He stayed and starred in six British films.

Now we’re facing an ironic reversal.

There’s been much coverage of how black British actors are triumphing on US screens, and not on those in the UK. But the opportunities in theatre also don’t exist here. I have been investigatingthe history and the current state of play for British black and Asian theatre artists and producers. They tell me that local audiences – white, black, Asian – have become less open to productions that don’t reflect “their” communities. I’ve heard that fewer roles are being auditioned colour-blind, and young and established actors alike have said to me, in frustration, “I’m going to have to try America”. How did this happen?

The actor Don Warrington has said that white actors’ careers run on “tramlines” partly shaped by the classical repertoire, whereas black actors’ employment is “stop-go”. Many are shunted into the sidings of Casualty, Holby City and countless police procedurals. In 2010, an unprecedented Guardian editorial complained that David Harewood – the National Theatre’s first black Othello, 13 years previously – was being given too few stage opportunities. Showtime promptly stepped in and cast him as the CIA chief in Homeland.

Last year several African-American plays and musical dramas were staged in London, including August Wilson’s Fences with Lenny Henry. Optimism grew. But as Fences’ director Paulette Randall has said, “It’s history repeating itself”.Back in 1986, Yvonne Brewster founded Talawa Britain’s foremost black-led theatre company. She fostered brilliant black playwrights and performers and laid claim to King Lear and Oscar Wilde. Meanwhile the actress Josette Simon was working her way up through the RSC’s ranks – from playing a desert-island sprite, a witch, and Cleopatra’s handmaid – to lead the company in 1987. Then she played Maggie - Marilyn Monroe - in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall at the National. The dramatist Bonnie Greer said she moved to London from Chicago because of the achievements of Simon’s generation.

British theatre is both art and part of an industry topped by film and television that produces highly skilled practitioners but doesn’t always know how to use them. Except stereotypically.

Multi-ethnic talent – especially policy-making talent – is essential off-stage as well as on. After a 2002 report revealed that 96% of British theatre staff were white, the Arts Council launched a decade-long series of Race Equality schemes that called on all companies to draw up positive programmes. Some called this “Stalinist” but experience shows that in a “stop-go” climate isolated advances are often followed by complacency and reversals. Under the Conservative-led Government there have been disproportionately large austerity” cuts to multicultural companies.

But committed practitioners will work with the tools available. Three leading black actors, Adrian Lester, Paterson Joseph and David Harewood, have all made TV documentaries working on Shakespeare with urban teenagers. In financially straightened times, Talawa’s current director Michael Buffong is working strategically alongside the mainstream system in the regions, with co-productions of Waiting for Godot and Miller’s All My Sons (with Don Warrington).

What is needed are artists prepared to ask inconvenient questions, which of course is traditionally the role of the writer. The American playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney has worked with and shaken up the RSC, directing Dharmesh Patel as Hamlet in a version for children: “If you’re from a minority and in the first show you see, everyone is white, a pattern builds.”

In the other direction, the Casualty actor Kwame Kwei-Armah took on the mission of dramatising a breadth of British black experiences, from street crime to the much less familiar world of politics and think-tanks. He inspired the National Theatre to create a vital database of black plays: http://www.blackplaysarchive.org.uk/. He’s now artistic director of Baltimore’s Center Stage Theatre.

And how radically different is American theatre really?

Despite all the advances in positive discrimination from the 1960s onwards, last month Theatre for a New Audience in New York called a round-table to confront the barriers non-white performers still face. For instance, it emerged that no Romeo or Hamlet of colour has been cast by a mainstream American theatre for 35 years.

On the other hand, the very next day, the <a href="new Harlem Shakespeare Festival</a> – created by the inspirational performer Debra Ann Byrd – commemorated the Shakespearean achievements of Aldridge, Robeson and Henrietta Vinton Davies (actress and activist: 1860-1941). The past can remind the present of what’s possible. http://www.nyc.gov/html/mancb10/downloads/pdf/arts/agenda_arts_feb2014.pdf

On March 25, Adrian Lester and a London cast will remind New Yorkers of Ira Aldridge’s bitter struggles and astonishing victories when Lolita Chakrabarti’s acclaimed play Red Velvet transfers to the St. Anne’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. Protest and celebration, British and American, must work together – because the Atlantic’s not just a lure, it’s a link.

Read the original article in The Conversation:

htttp://www.nyc.gov/html/mancb10/downloads/pdf/arts/agenda_arts_feb2014.pdf


February 17, 2014

Delia Jarrett–Macauley: The Competitive Edge

Several years ago in 2007 when I served as a judge for the Caine Prize (commonly known as the African Booker), the winner of the short story competition was the Ugandan writer Monica Arac de Nyeko, whose story Jambula Tree told of the tender love between two girls.

The love between the girls flies in the face of their society’s conventions but gives them strength, confidence and purpose. It was clear to the Caine Prize judges and to other readers of the Jambula Tree that the writing of this story of forbidden love took some daring on the part of the young author. It was the same kind of daring that prompted Radclyffe Hall to pen The Well of Loneliness, and for Jackie Kay to produce The Adoption Papers.

The prevalence of homophobic laws and anti-gay feeling across several African countries has recently been in the news. On the BBC website a depressing map of discrimination appeared, and in January of this year another Caine Prize winner, the Kenyan memoirist Binyawanga Wainana, wrote ‘I Am a Homosexual, Mum,’ a ‘lost chapter’ to his memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place to coincide with his 43rd birthday, and subsequently received numerous letters of support from writers and artists across the globe.

The Caine Prize, one of many, many literary awards, is perhaps serving inadvertently as a means to push new thinking about what it means to be ‘African’ as well as new writing from the people of African origin and descent.

And what does this have to do with Shakespeare? Or with BBAS?

We too are running a writing competition. It is called Othello can be white, Romeo can be a girl, and is aimed at young writers.

Although the creative process is intrinsically an embattled one, often requiring the artist to fight multiple demons, writing competitions can help scribes to share the struggle and to give voice to ideas, feelings and personal insights that would otherwise remain hidden. Competing for a tangible reward and public acknowledgement can be a spur to making a daring statement, to writing the lost chapter or even paragraph of a play, a film or a book.

This Shakespeare writing competition, Othello can be white, Romeo can be a girl, comes after a full year of the BBAS operation, working with schools, local authorities and theatres, and has been devised to encourage young people to share their thoughts and experiences on the casting of Shakespeare’s plays; we are looking for original, engaged responses that show knowledge and creativity.

We are looking for entries that explore how Shakespeare’s plays have been cast, or could be cast for an imaginary stage, film or TV production. We are certainly not only thinking about ‘race’, skin colour or ethnicity; nor are we only interested in the two plays referred to in the title of the competition.

Entries can focus on any Shakespeare play or film. Entrants can respond in a piece of creative writing, exploring their ideas more generally, or in an essay-based format.

The competition will be judged in two categories: 14- 18 year olds (Upper Secondary, and 19-25 year olds (College/University).

Othello can be white, Romeo can be a girl is running as a pilot competition (not open to the general public), but welcoming submissions from a wide cross-section of schools, colleges, writing groups and theatres with which the BBAS project has been in contact over the last year. This group includes drama schools such as RADA, Bristol Grammar School, Royal Holloway College, London, the Curve Theatre in Leicester and the Tricycle Theatre in north London, as well as schools and academies in Lancashire, Yorkshire and Slough.

From these different places we expect to capture a sense of young peoples’ views on the staging of Shakespeare’s plays today. If the youthful audience that packed out the Barbican Theatre this week for Tom Morris’s Bristol Old Vic production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is anything to go by, the appetite for non-traditional casting is alive and well; in addition to partnering with Handspring Puppet Company, whose puppets convey both mysticism and devilishness, there is a multi-racial cast of young men and women mostly appearing costumed as carpenters’ mates, Hermia played with full feistiness by Akiya Henry, and the cheeky Bottom bringing Miltos Yerolemou even more fans.

The riotous comedy that kept the Barbican audience in their seats until the play closed with the majestic swaying Oberon and Titania bidding us farewell, was a far cry from the quiet sensibility threaded through Monica Arac De Nyeko’s Jambula Tree love story. Both productions were bold and experimental, however.

Creative writing competitions can encourage boldness, daring and experimentation. They can also encourage us to be more considered and reflective. The winners in each category of the Othello can be white, Romeo can be a girl competition will receive £200 cash and tickets to Shakespeare’s Globe; there are prizes for the runners up too. We hope there will be many rewards from participation.

Apart from winning the Caine Prize for her story back in 2007, Monica Arac de Nyeko’s bravery is being further rewarded. Her short story has been made into a film, a South-African/Kenyan production, by the Kenyan film-maker Wanuri Kahui, better known for sci-fi. The screen version of Jambula Tree is already garnering praise and Monica is set to become more famous.


January 08, 2014

Guest Blog: Jami Rogers: Casting at the Donmar

Josie Rourke, colourblind casting and her Donmar Warehouse Shakespeares

In my recent Shakespeare Bulletin article (linked to via this blog), I observed that several recent West End Shakespeare star vehicles had not cast a single black or Asian actor. These included James McAvoy's 2013 Macbeth directed by Jamie Lloyd, Rupert Goold's 2007 Macbeth with Patrick Stewart and Josie Rourke's 2011 production of Much Ado About Nothing with David Tennant and Catherine Tate as Benedick and Beatrice. I want to propose a coda to this assessment of the clear lack of opportunities in these productions – which probably reflects more upon West End management (and audience expectations of Shakespeare in the private sector?) than individual directors – here on this blog by focusing on the Donmar's Shakespeare offerings under Josie Rourke.

Josie Rourke was appointed as Michael Grandage's successor at the Donmar Warehouse, taking over in 2012. In the twenty years since its re-opening under continuous management the Donmar has developed a reputation for staging studio Shakespeare productions, first under its first artistic director, Sam Mendes and then his successor, Grandage. In its first decade, the handful of Shakespeares staged at the Donmar were imports from touring companies, including Mendes's own production of Richard III for the RSC with Simon Russell Beale in 1992. Mendes's swan song was a repertory pairing of Twelfth Night and Uncle Vanya featuring Simon Russell Beale, which finished Mendes' tenure on a high note and opening to rapturous reviews and finally closing in New York City at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2003.

Under Grandage, Shakespeare at the Donmar took on a distinctly "starry" tint with his first studio Shakespeare in the space being his 2007 Othello, which had lured Ewan McGregor back to the stage (he has actually had very little stage experience) and provided Chiwetel Ejifor with a vehicle to showcase his emerging talent. Grandage also staged Twelfth Night with Derek Jacobi and Jude Law's Hamlet at Wyndham's under the Donmar banner and Jacobi made his Donmar Warehouse debut in Grandage's King Lear. Grandage's final Shakespeare recruited rising film star Eddie Redmayne to play Richard II in 2011. Under Mendes and Grandage, Shakespeare gradually came to have a high profile home in the Donmar Warehouse with an increasing habit of recruiting famous actors with little Shakespeare (if any) experience to play lead roles (Beale and Jacobi excepted). The productions were often well crafted but ultimately uninspiring, primarily traditional and more and more frequently were vehicles that hearkened back to the star emphasis of the actor-manager days.

In the first Shakespeare production at the Donmar under its first female artistic director, Josie Rourke and her director Phyllida Lloyd radically overturned Grandage's Shakespeare legacy. In 2012, Rourke announced the upcoming season at the Donmar was to feature an all-female Julius Caesar directed by Phyllida Lloyd, opening in November 2012. What's interesting about that Evening Standard article (above via the link), which announced the production is the emphasis it placed on providing equal opportunities for women; the only mention of race was a mention of the RSC's "all-black" Julius Caesar which had played in the West End that summer. What was not evident to the features writer was that Lloyd's production was also providing a significant classical showcase for actresses in the vein of Joe Papp's original conception of colourblind casting that puts a premium on talent. In particular, two of the play's major roles went to Jenny Jules and Cush Jumbo as Cassius and Mark Antony, respectively. In another indication of the talent involved in the production, Jade Anouka has been nominated for the 2012 Ian Charleson Awards (the prize given to outstanding classical work by performers under 30) for her roles in Julius Caesar (Calphurnia/Metellus Cimber/Pindarus).

In her first Shakespeare production at the Donmar, Coriolanus, Josie Rourke has both kept Grandage's "starry" meme in casting Tom Hiddleston (who played Cassio in Grandage's Othello) as the eponymous hero as well as continuing to provide opportunities for both women and ethnic minority performers. The gender cross-casting was present in Rourke turning the Roman tribunes into a male/female double act with Katherine Schlesinger taking on Sicinus [Veletus] (re-named Sicinia) paired with Elliot Levey's [Junius] Brutus. Contemporary custom was also followed in having women make up the crowds, in this case paired down (four, to be exact) with two women and two men playing the amorphous mobs that periodically appear in Coriolanus. Rourke also showed that the Donmar has provided a springboard in central London for Papp's talent-based colourblind casting with significant roles (although not leading in this case, unlike Caesar) going to ethnic minorities, including Peter de Jersey as the general Cominius. Coriolanus also provided young actors such as Dwane Walcott with further experience in classical work (Walcott played the Soothsayer under what was disfiguring make-up – signalling him as "other" – in Michael Fentiman's 2013 RSC production of Titus Andronicus; Rourke's Coriolanus showed his talent – and his face – to much better effect).

The primary reason I wanted to single out the Donmar's recent history for brief scrutiny is to place it within the context of recent trends in Shakespearean production. As explored in my Shakespeare Bulletin article, the ratio of white to minority actors has settled into a 90%-10% or 80%-20% formula that has created a glass ceiling in classical acting for minority performers (not ignoring the glass ceiling for female performers, but that's for another forum). The primary way in which theatre companies have provided greater opportunities for ethnic minorities has been to locate the action of Shakespeare's plays within a cultural context that "allows" for a greater population of black and/or Asian people (characters). While this has – in some cases – contributed to an ability to showcase talent and provide classical acting experience to those performers often deprived of opportunities, the trend of placing Shakespeare's plays in "foreign" settings also signals that black and Asians remain "other". Rourke's first two Shakespeare productions at the Donmar Warehouse have categorically bucked this trend. Neither Lloyd nor Rourke used their production settings to exclude characters through racial division, although Lloyd in particular could easily have done so within the context of prison, where statistics point to an overwhelming minority demographic. Instead both directors showcased talent by providing opportunities to actors – both experienced and inexperienced in classical acting – that have been difficult to find in recent years in a form that is largely about talent (not fitting them into a culture that stereotypes their skin colour), unless they already have top name billing such as Adrian Lester. Jules, Jumbo, Anouka, de Jersey, et al were allowed to provide positive role models in classical acting, which will hopefully lead to greater opportunities in other major productions sooner rather than later.


December 10, 2013

Guest Blog: Jami Rogers – Part Two: The Glass Ceiling

Jami Rogers' recent piece in Shakespeare Bulletin defines and challenges a Shakespearean Class Ceiling in the casting of Black and Asian performers in UK Shakespeare:

Regardless of cast size the ratio of white to actors of other races continued to hover around 90% white throughout the remainder of the twentieth century...

…[T]he RSC had few black actors in its early years with the largest number in a season to be found during the year of The Romans (seven). As far as it is possible to detail, in the 1980s and 1990s the RSC had casts of between 21 and 26 actors with only one or two roles played by performers of black or Asian descent. For example, the 1981 Titus Andronicus had 22 actors with Hugh Quarshie as (the already black) Aaron and (in the production’s only example of colorblind casting) Joseph Marcell as a Messenger. In other words, these two actors—Quarshie and Marcell—made up 9% of the total cast. Similar figures can be found in the 1980s productions with the highest number of ethnically diverse actors appearing in Barry Kyle’s 1984 Love’s Labour’s Lost, Adrian Noble’s 1986 Macbeth and Nicholas Hytner’s Measure for Measure the following year. Each of these had a total of 3 black or Asian actors in casts of 26, 27 and 21 respectively, giving the first two an 11% proportion of ethnic minority actors. Measure for Measure (incidentally the only production of the three to cast a black actor, Josette Simon, in a leading role) attained the giddy heights of 14% of its population being of black or Asian descent (in part because the total number of actors had dropped to 21). The decline in the total number of actors in Hytner’s Measure for Measure was a sign of increased budgetary pressures as the RSC reduced its overhead with a long-term decrease in cast sizes. However, regardless of cast size the ratio of white to actors of other races continued to hover around 90% white throughout the remainder of the twentieth century.

* * * * * *

…Unlike the RSC, however, regional productions now also seem frequently devoid of a single black or Asian face within their casts.

...Out of the 74 productions included in the survey of Shakespeares performed in the 2000s outside the confines of the RSC, 17 of them made no concession to the practice of colorblind casting. These 17 productions had all-white casts including at the acclaimed Tobacco Factory, Bristol and Royal Exchange, Manchester as well as almost all of Edward Hall’s productions under the Propeller umbrella. Some high-profile London productions have also failed to hire a single ethnic minority actor, even in minor roles, including Rupert Goold’s Macbeth starring Patrick Stewart (Chichester, later transferring to the Gielgud), Josie Rourke’s West End Much Ado starring David Tennant and Catherine Tate, and—most recently—Jamie Lloyd’s Macbeth with James McAvoy. That the Goold and Rourke productions were recorded—Macbeth for the BBC and Much Ado for download by Digital Theatre—also means that media representation of the plays remains largely the domain of white actors, perpetuating the dominant cultural stereotype of Shakespeare largely an elitist, white beacon of Englishness.

For the full study, follow the link:

http://drjamirogers.wordpress.com/2013/12/03/the-shakespearean-glass-ceiling-author-reprint/

Most recently, Dr. Jami Rogers was a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton in the Drama Department. She trained at LAMDA and holds an MA and a PhD from the Shakespeare Institute, the University of Birmingham. Prior to obtaining her PhD, she spent 10 years working in public broadcasting in the US including 8 years at PBS's flagship programmes, Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery!. She regularly publishes on the contemporary performance of Shakespeare's plays, including recent articles in Shakespeare Bulletin and Shakespeare: the Journal of the British Shakespeare Association. She has taught in Birmingham, London, Preston and Bolton and performed in professional productions in Washington, D.C. and Boston. She has lectured on Shakespeare and American drama at the National Theatre in London and works regularly with David Thacker at the Octagon Theatre, Bolton.


December 04, 2013

Guest Blog: Jami Rogers Writes – Part One: Tarrell Alvin McCraney's Antony and Cleopatra at the RSC

Race plays an important role in Tarrell Alvin McCraney's production of Antony and Cleopatra at the RSC – an important but a surprisingly subtle and sometimes contradictory one. McCraney is an actor, director and playwright whose career has been nurtured a large extent by British theatre with his major plays produced at the Young Vic and the Royal Court (and one far less successful play for the RSC). McCraney's best plays have been those that have interrogated the African American experience through thought-provoking multiple lenses. The Brothers Size and In the Red and Brown Water premiered at the Young Vic in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, an event that sent shock waves through America as the fissure between black and white were made evident once again. Choir Boy – a Royal Court and Lincoln Center co-production – movingly examined what it felt like to be both black and gay in a prestigious New England boarding school.

McCraney's work is infused with what Michael Billington has described as "mythic simplicity" and The Brothers Size and In the Red and Brown Water drew on Yoruba traditions, which infused his work with a mixture of realism and ritual. The impact of The Brothers Size lay in the combination of its formal language, its simple staging without décor, and the pure physicality of the performances that focused on characters and situations without distraction in the production at the Young Vic made it an intense and rewarding experience. At the play's core is an encounter by African Americans with law enforcement – a racially charged event in contemporary experience – which added layers of complexity in what was otherwise a family drama. Choir Boy is a play that investigates the cultural de-humanisation of groups of people, especially along racial and sexual orientation lines with black students in the all black private school now segregating their own. Significantly, the play takes place as the school prepares for its 50th anniversary – more than a nod to the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech that was then only a year in the future when Choir Boy premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in 2012. Choir Boy takes an incisive and painful look at how far America has swerved from the road trod by King in 1963.

My point in drawing out McCraney's writing is to hint at (as it is impossible to fully illustrate in a blog post) this body of work that draws heavily on myths yet simultaneously expresses the fissure in America (and, frankly, Britain) that breaks along racial lines – sometimes in gut-wrenching and visceral ways. The mythic status of the characters of Antony and Cleopatra may be what attracted McCraney to the play, perhaps seeing in these characters with larger than life reputations another way to explore the themes that have peppered his work. In fact, it began with a naked Cleopatra, walking through the pool of water upstage against the back of the Swan's wall and then sitting along its edge, wailing.

Given McCraney's body of work and the production's status as a co-production with two American companies and its purported setting as Haiti before the revolution, Antony and Cleopatra felt very British. The cast was half- British and half-American, but only once did an American accent come out of any of their mouths; the rest of the time the Americans adopted Received Pronunciation or – in the case of the Egyptians – Haitian or African accents. The style was often very reserved as well, with actors maintaining and upright posture and very clear verse-speaking (or as I prefer to call it, communicating the verse to the audience). There was little – or no – American exuberance (known often in these parts as being 'loud') and it was almost static in terms of movement (or 'statuesque' as is said of some defenders in British football who are completely still as the ball whizzes past them and into the back of the net).

Yet for all its seeming Britishness in style, elements of it were also very American. Most notably, perhaps, was what Enobarbus (who frequently acted as narrator in McCraney's script) termed as "An Interlude: Caesar's Triumph". Caesar's triumph was one that in no uncertain terms was directly corresponding to the slave trade. One character was paraded around the stage – bound by a single rope that intertwined her neck, wrists and her owner – and whipped. Pompey then had his throat ceremoniously cut as Caesar looked on, wearing his gold garland on his head. While this non-verbal addition was layered with the painful (largely American) stigma of slavery on a date when I saw it that was very nearly the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, one of my British friends was extremely frustrated by the slavery imagery. 'Why?', she asked (the Americans got it immediately).

I think that answer to that 'Why?' lies both in McCraney's interests and in the audiences who will encounter the production next in Miami and New York. What McCraney's casting did was to primarily separate Romans and Egyptians along racial lines. Cleopatra and her entourage were black or mixed race while the Romans were English, dressed to represent the Napoleonic French as a nod to the Haitian setting (and rather than ignore it because we should be well past noticing or caring, but since we aren't it's worth noting that this was the first black actress to play Cleopatra on an RSC stage). The racial lines were drawn in ways that would probably shock Joseph Papp, who truly believed in colorblind casting, casting on merit with the best actor given the role purely on ability no matter if they were Blue or Gray. Somewhat counter-intuitively, this was the crucial difference in using race as cultural situator between McCraney's British-American production and recent British attempts at equality.

Many theatre companies have found ways to include more ethnic minority actors in their Shakespearean casts, making the process more equitable. This has sometimes taken the form of setting the plays in "foreign" locales (i.e., not recognizably heritage-infused white English country houses of period drama), sometimes with all black or all Asian casts, at other times with the demarcation along lines that show feuds in terms of race (as easily done in more than one Romeo and Juliet). This approach has often led to ethnic minority actors being re-"Other"-ized by forcing them to adopt African or Asian accents rather than allowing British-born actors to speak in their natural accents like their white contemporaries do. True, on one hand McCraney's Antony and Cleopatra was making Cleopatra and her fellow countrymen and women "other" in speech (the African/Haitian accents) and deed (with what I assume to be voodoo rituals introduced towards the end of the production). Yet the insertion of the slavery motif in what was in actual fact a very brief vignette highlighted the fact that Rome was there to conquer Egypt – the white man was colonizing Africa (or Haiti) once again. In this light, there was a kind of quiet dignity to Cleopatra's refusal to capitulate to the conquering Caesar and in her death she set her people free. What McCraney did – and perhaps was only able to achieve because of the interests clearly inherent in his own playwriting – was to infuse the Africans with pride in their culture. This Antony and Cleopatra was not celebrating Mark Antony's triumphs (rightly as he loses frequently in the play); instead McCraney's production celebrated Cleopatra. The vision of the black character in chains in the "Interlude" is juxtaposed with the spiritually free Cleopatra who chooses death rather than submission to the colonial invader. Freedom versus slavery, a very strong pull still in McCraney's America.

------------------------

Most recently, Dr. Jami Rogers was a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton in the Drama Department. She trained at LAMDA and holds an MA and a PhD from the Shakespeare Institute, the University of Birmingham. Prior to obtaining her PhD, she spent 10 years working in public broadcasting in the US including 8 years at PBS's flagship programmes, Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery!. She regularly publishes on the contemporary performance of Shakespeare's plays, including recent articles in Shakespeare Bulletin and Shakespeare: the Journal of the British Shakespeare Association. She has taught in Birmingham, London, Preston and Bolton and performed in professional productions in Washington, D.C. and Boston. She has lectured on Shakespeare and American drama at the National Theatre in London and works regularly with David Thacker at the Octagon Theatre, Bolton.


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