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June 12, 2014
William Shakespeare isn’t the only playwright to be celebrating a big birthday this year. The Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka is now 80, and to honour him the literary wing of the Royal Africa Society, Africa Writes, invited him to speak at the British Library in London. In a dazzling, witty and compelling conversation the packed house heard stories about his early life as captured in Ake: The Years of Childhood.
The best questions from the floor came from the novelist Chibundo Onuzo: ‘I’m going to ask you about your Afro? How do you interact with the iconography of your person?’
The longest questions came from an unpublished writer who wanted advice on how long he might have to wait and under what conditions he should wait to get into print. ‘Prepare to collect your rejection slips!’ warned Soyinka, ‘and write when you feel compelled to do so.’
And the most serious questions concerned the state of Nigeria, Boko Haram and the kidnapping of the 200 schoolgirls, which Soyinka responded to by describing how the culture of impunity had become rampant in Nigeria over a period of many years.
Asked about the First Lady of Nigeria, Soyinka replied, ‘You’re trying to draw me.’
There was lots of laughter, and then he added, ‘Nigeria is a land of wonders.’
This ‘land of wonders’ is laid bare by the narrator of this political poem written during Soyinka’s imprisonment in Nigeria from 1967-1969.
He stilled his doubts, they rose to halt and lame
A resolution on the rack. Passion’s flame
Was doused in fear of error; his mind’s unease
Bred indulgence to the state’s disease.
Ghosts embowelled his earth; he clung to rails
In a gallery of abstractions, distracting tales
As ’told by an idiot’. Passionless he set the stage
Of passion for the guilt he would engage.
Justice despaired. The turn and turn abouts
Of reason danced default to duty’s counterpoint.
Till treachery scratched the slate of primal clay.
Then Metaphysics waived a thought’s delay.
It took the salt in the wound, the point
Envenom’d too to steal the prince of doubts.
This week I’ve been in and out of The Globe. My first visit was to the library tucked away in the Globe Education Department. It felt like a real researcher’s spot, archiving was going on somewhere behind me, the bookshelves looked happily crammed and a bit quaint, my fellow researchers earnest.
Researching ‘race’ in British history throws up so many quandaries. It is well known from the Globe’s programme of work that Black and Asian actors have appeared in many productions. They are there in the current world-touring Hamlet, in the DVD of the all-female Much Ado directed by Tamara Harvey in 2004, and in the posters on the wall at the stage door. They play lead roles and minor parts; they join training sessions and unwind the neighbouring bars. However, apart from examining the faces in ‘Adopt an Actor,’ in the main Black and Asian performers are not easily tracked through the archives. The books by leading African-American academic Ayanna Thompson do not appear when I search: Colourblind Shakespeare, New Perspectives on Race and Performance (Routledge, 2006) and the more recent monograph Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race and Contemporary America (OUP, 2011) should be available to guide researchers seeking to understand how colour-blind casting has evolved and so make better sense of the Globe’s own achievements in this area.
History, like all other areas of organised Western learning, is constrained by norms established over centuries and carries with it the social and political preoccupations of the dominant culture. That truth is evidenced in the recent spat about the inclusion of American texts in the English school curriculum and it is shown in the deliberate attempt to deny and exclude Black historical figures such as the Jamaican Mary Seacole from the teaching of British history.
Still with The Globe - my pleasure in seeing Joseph Marcell performing in Derek Walcott’s epic Omeros was certainly enhanced by the poem being familiar, and both Marcell and Jade Anouka, in movement and voice, brought St Lucian language and life rhythms into the candlelit Sam Wannamaker Playhouse. When I glanced back at the critics on Omeros, I was reminded of the fact that when it was fresh off the press, John Figueroa hungrily devoured and dissected it for Stewart Brown’s collection The Art of Derek Walcott, (Seren Books, 1991), making connections between the Greek and modern retelling, revealing the cultural divide across which Walcott writes.
Away from the Nobel laureates, other work on Black and Asian people in the arts – actors, directors, writers and producers – is long overdue. There is no doubt that in Britain some written evidence exists in private papers, newspapers, organisational reports and so on. Many of those sources remain untapped. Tapping them, of course, requires the help of individuals who recognise the need to categorise or re-categorise those sources so that the creative practices and achievements of Black and Asian people can be opened up to wider intellectual enquiry. When that happens, history can catch up with reality.
With thanks to Shauna Barrett, Librarian, Shakespeare’s Globe.