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August 16, 2015

Diverse Casting and The Wars of the Roses


Dr. Jami Rogers

Researcher in Multicultural Shakespeare, the University of Warwick

One remark from 2012 I keep returning to because it is so striking is Mark Lawson's in a Guardian article discussing the BBC's Hollow Crown series. In it he observed that the Corporation's high-profile Shakespeare productions would "feature colour-blind casting – now standard in theatre." In the era when debates about the need for more diversity are legion, when Equity has adopted an Inclusive Casting Policy, and Act for Change has hosted a major event at the National Theatre on casting in theatre, Shakespeare is viewed as a bastion of diversity. The Rose Theatre, Kingston's forthcoming production of The Wars of the Roses has inadvertently re-opened that debate when Trevor Nunn assembled an all-white cast for the Henry VI - Richard III tetralogy.

Having worked on issues of diversity and casting for several years, I have assembled a database of over 1100 productions that celebrates the work of ethnic minority performers and the productions in which they appear (which will be publicly available online from September 2015). The database has also illuminated casting patterns that are not always positive. This is particularly true of the Shakespeare's history plays, which despite some high-profile breaking of the colour-barrier - notably Michael Boyd's casting of David Oyelowo to play Henry VI - are often much less diverse than productions of Shakespeare's comedies or tragedies. Since 2000, there have been at least 13 professional productions of Richard II in the UK - including radio and television - and of those at least four have had all-white casts, including the RSC in 2000, the Tobacco Factory in 2011 and Trevor Nunn's 2005 production at the Old Vic. According to the statistics I have amassed, the role in Richard II most often cast using a BAME performer has been Aumerle. Richard II has never been played by an ethnic minority performer and the last time Bolingbroke was cast with an ethnic minority actor was in 1935 at the Old Vic when the Burmese-Jewish actor Abraham Sofaer was cast to play him.

The Henry VI plays, which comprise two-thirds of John Barton's version of The Wars of the Roses, have fared better in terms of diversity - arguably because they are not at the top of the Shakespearean hit parade. The weight of this performance history has helped to highlight the lack of diversity in Nunn's casting, precisely because David Oyelowo's casting at the RSC for its millennial This England histories cycle was widely publicized. Nunn is absolutely correct when he states he has been at the forefront of integrated casting policies for decades. He directed the first RSC production that had a black Othello and promoted Hugh Quarshie from Sir Richard Vernon to Hotspur, for example. Yet it is the reasoning put forth for the all-white cast in 2015 for Henry VI and Richard III that has almost singlehandly exploded the myth that classical theatre is a nirvana for ethnic minority casting. From a theatrical history standpoint, the claim of historical accuracy is troubling precisely because these plays have already challenged that ground.

Nunn's casting director, Ginny Schiller, provided further detail to this rationale, noting to The Independent that he had "decided that because of the complex family tree and conflicting claims to the throne through direct lineage to Edward III, a naturalistic ‘colour aware’ approach was required....All the supporting actors will play many parts, and at some point in the trilogy take on roles who are related to the Houses of York and Lancaster by blood. This is why even those roles with no genealogical link to the families were also cast white.” The argument falls apart when held to account by a theatrical precedent of nearly 30 years, dating from the RSC's 1988 The Plantagenets cycle, which was loosely based on The Wars of the Roses edit of the tetralogy.

The characters in Shakespeare's plays are notoriously confusing, but the factions have been relatively easy to discern through costuming choices by colour-coding them with the red and white roses of Lancaster and York. The RSC's major history cycles have also cross-cast the plays with most actors playing multiple parts; sometimes the played characters that were related to the houses of York or Lanchaster and at others not. Programmes for the history plays frequently have family trees, sometimes with headshots of the cast in order to help the audience discern the factions, such as this from the RSC's 1988 cycle, directed by Adrian Noble.

Plantagenets programme

As we can see, the family tree contains no ethnic minorities, but Adrian Noble's productions did have BAME actors playing multiple roles and that caused no discernible confusion for the audience.

Michael Boyd's 2000 Henry VI, David Oyelowo, had a white son with a white wife (which asked questions about the Prince of Wales as the illegitimate offspring of Queen Margaret and her lover the Duke of Suffolk). Boyd's production also cast Rhashan Stone as George, Duke of Clarence, who had white brothers and a white father. Again, there is no evidence the casting confused the highly educated audiences that make up the Shakespearean theatre demographic.

The Histories programme

By 2006, it must have been thought that audiences had no need for visual cues in terms of the complex familial relationships between the Yorks and Lancasters as the family tree sufficed - sans actor head shots - for the RSC's revivals of Boyd's productions. The 2006 Henry VIs were more ethnically diverse than any previous history cycle and were cross-cast over eight plays with the company asked to play considerably more characters. In terms of its ethnic minority precedents, Ann Ogbomo's Queen Elizabeth had a multi-racial family while Boyd cast an ethnic minority actor to play the Prince of Wales, possibly to quell any questions about the character's parentage that had arisen in the 2000 version. Thus, three RSC history cycles from 1988 - 2006 both used race to denote parentage and, within the same cycles, frequently discarded any genetic concerns, i.e., pro-actively practised diverse casting without being swayed by any arguments about the necessity for historical accuracy.

For nearly thirty years, the Henry VI plays have been cast inclusively, but Nunn's has broken the mould. If this were a one-off episode in recent years, the discussions brewing might be a gentle consciousness-raising exercise. However, there are indications that the casting of all-white companies for Shakespeare's history plays is burgeoning into a trend. The most recent production of Henry VI - a Globe touring company - also had an all-white cast, which went unnoticed - most likely because it was not a main stage production garnering the usual media scrutiny of the productions on the South Bank. There is a wealth of classical theatre talent that is under-used no matter what the actors' race or gender, but the 'historical verisimilitude' is an argument that fails to convince in Britain in 2015, even with the excellent cast assembled for the Rose Theatre's new production.


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 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


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 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.

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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.


June 28, 2013

Welcome to the Blog.

Writing about web page http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/bbashakespeare/

Welcome to the BBA Shakespeare blog.

On July 2nd a remarkable group of actors, academics, critics, directors and administrators gather at Millburn House in Warwick University to discuss the past, present - and perhaps even future - condition of Multicultural Shakespeare in Britain.

In the C19, Ira Aldridge came to Europe because at home in the USA he was 'unable to act on any stage', as Paul Robeson put it.

Ira played Othello and then many of the greatest roles in Shakespeare and, despite facing racism in London, he built an extraordinary reputation on the Continent as one of the very greatest actors of his age. In 1930 Paul Robeson followed him to London and played Othello - wearing the earrings Ira Aldridge wore, which had been given to him by Aldridge's daughter - who helped to train Robeson's voice for this, his first Shakespearean appearance. Robeson had come to London for the same reason - to avoid racism in New York.

Earlier this year, as it happens, Warwick gave an honorary degree to Earl Cameron, who was also trained by Miss Aldridge. In three weeks time the university's also going to honour Adrian Lester, who has just played Ira Aldridge in his wife Lolita Chakrabati's Kilburn Tricycle play Red Velvet. 'I had never heard of Ira', he said. Many things are forgotten, but they can come alive again, in unexpected shapes and patterns.

Our project is an attempt to put together the scattered history of the performances that followed in Aldridge and Robeson's footsteps -- across the UK and across the years. Scattered and often forgotten. Everyone knows that Olivier blacked up to play Othello at the Old Vic in 1964. Not so many remember that the playwright Errol John, the author of the masterpiece Moon on a Rainbow Shawl played the same role on the same stage in 1963 - and was critically slaughtered. This wasn't the great tragic hero Othello, said one distinguished critic who'd better remain mercifully anonymous - this was 'an immigrant'.

At the symposium, we hope to recover some lost great moments of this history, honouring the pioneers' achievements as they brought new voices into the world of UK classical theatre: British Black and Asian Shakespeareans creating what we're calling

bbas-colour-logo.png

But here too will be practitioners sharing their experiences and their skills, and there will be debates about styles, audiences, definitions, difficulties, and the prospects for the future of multicultural theatre in the UK. We hope to bring some of July 2nd's highlights to our new website, and soon.........


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