Research on Shakespeare, race has earned her ASU's top faculty honor
A dispiriting job on Wall Street led Ayanna Thompson to the realization that she wanted to change the world more than she wanted a big paycheck.
Now, the Arizona State University professor of English is among the top scholars of Shakespeare in the world and was recently named to the board of the Royal Shakespeare Company. She is so excellent in her field that she has been named one of four Regents Professors for 2021 – the highest faculty honor, which is achieved by only 3% of faculty members at ASU.
Thompson studies questions about Shakespeare and race and has written books exploring the roots of blackface and minstrelsy on the English stage in premodern times. She’s applied her expertise in working extensively with theater companies to explore issues of race in casting and the audience experience.
And while that Wall Street job was not for her, she appreciates what she learned in the months she was an analyst in the oil and gas group at Lehman Brothers.
“I grew up working-class poor and my goal in life was to make money and be successful financially,” she said.
“I started out working on Wall Street and I thought I made it. I was able to have take-out food every night. It was a working-class person’s dream.”
She grew a tough skin in the male-dominated atmosphere, but it was not intellectually inspiring.
“I realized that I wanted to be in an environment where I could be with people who were constantly thinking about big ideas and how the world worked and how to make it a better place,” she said.
She thought about her professors from her undergraduate years at Columbia, and gave up her big salary to go to graduate school. Although she didn’t intend to focus on Shakespeare.
“I was thinking about race and power structures in the colonial world, but I realized that for the questions I had about race and race formation, I had to go backwards in time.
“I ended up back in the Renaissance and when you end up in the Renaissance, you have to do Shakespeare.”
In her first job at the University of New Mexico, she had her students watch filmed performances of Shakespeare's plays. She became curious about the casting, where sometimes actors were playing characters who were of a different race than them.
“It was this moment when they were doing integrated casting,” she said. “I said, ‘Who’s writing about this and how did it come to be?’ And no one had written about it.”
So she wrote “Colorblind Shakespeare,” the first book on the topic.
Thompson was going where no one else had gone.
“I think about it as following the question. Being trained in African American studies and postcolonial studies, I was asking a whole different set of questions than Shakespeare scholars were because I wasn’t trained as a Shakespeare scholar."
She encountered a lot of resistance to her work in Shakespeare and race.
“For years it felt Sisyphean,” she said. “They would say, ‘Your argument is anachronistic,’ so I would lay out an argument that was not anachronistic. I’d have to keep mounting the same arguments.”
Finally, there was a tipping point.
“I felt fueled by the early-career scholars who came behind me and were reading me, and at the same time I was getting validation from the theater companies who were hiring me to work with them.
“They were saying, ‘You are asking the right questions and we need your help to put your theories into practice.’
“That’s what kept me in the field.”
The theater companies wanted Thompson to help them with what they put on the stage, but she also was interested in how audiences were interpreting it. The companies weren’t asking their audiences what they thought about inclusive casting.
She discovered that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival kept an archive of letters dating back to the 1930s.
“The companies were saying, ‘Our audience loves inclusive casting.’ A lot of the letters to the company had to do with racial casting, so I told them, ‘I’m not sure the evidence you have bears out what you’re saying.’"
She worked with the theater companies on how to guide conversations with audiences that could change the way they were experiencing Shakespeare.
“Summer 2020 was the moment every theater company had a reckoning,” she said. “I joked that I’ve never been so popular.”
Thompson also uses performance with her students.
“I do a lot of performance practices in my classroom because we know that kinesthetic learning and embodied knowledge stay with you longer.
“I get them to think about performance as an interpretation and a decision, not an answer,” said Thompson, who wrote the book “Teaching Shakespeare with Purpose” with an education specialist.
At ASU, students are “sponges,” receptive to new ideas and without preconceived notions, she said, which allows her to continuously discover nuances in the plays.
“My favorite play to teach is ‘Titus Andronicus,’ which is a bloody play about rape and mutilation,” she said.
There are two characters who orchestrate the violence, and one time, a student asked how old they were.
“I was like, ‘Right. How old are they?’ If they’re in their 20s, that’s one thing, but if they’re 13 or 14, that’s another thing,” she said, adding that the play does not reveal their ages.
“That was a question I had never asked myself, and it blows the students’ minds that one person can think they’re in their 20s and another thinks they’re 12.”
“Hamlet” has a different meaning when, for example, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Black friends as opposed to white friends, she said.
“They’re killed by Hamlet without a thought, and that is then part of the disposability of the Black body in that performance or in your reading of that play.”
“All of the issues that are present in the 21st century also are present in Shakespeare’s plays, including race, gender and ability.”
Thompson has worked to expand access to Shakespeare, and premodern studies, through the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. She became director of the center in 2018, when she returned to ASU after teaching for five years at George Washington University.
“We are a much larger presence in the world, and we’re at the forefront of premodern race studies and premodern studies in general,” she said.
The pandemic has allowed the center to reach a bigger audience.
“An event that would have had 60 people on campus at ASU now has 300 people with audience members in New Zealand, Australia, South Africa,” she said.
“It turns out there’s an international audience for our programming.”
Thompson has also transformed the center’s press, ACMRS Press, which publishes research on medieval and renaissance studies, by making it open access – free to anyone.
“Like ASU, we want to have maximum impact and maximum access, and pay walls shouldn’t stand between you and the resources you need to research or teach,” she said.
Thompson said that ASU is the perfect environment for her work.
“There is no other place in the world that would support the kind of access and impact and excellence that we’re trying to achieve.”
Top photo of Ayanna Thompson by Jarod Opperman/Arizona State University