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Professor examines Bard’s work through colorblind lens

May 09, 2008

Should you notice, or shouldn’t you?

In a “colorblind” society, a black actor cast as Macbeth should not turn heads. The audience has come to enjoy a theater classic that is touted, like the rest of Shakespeare’s works, as a “universal play with timeless themes.”

Whether the actor is black, white, Asian or Native American should not make any difference.

But it’s not as simple as that, says Ayanna Thompson, an assistant professor of English and women and gender studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

In “Colorblind Shakespeare: New Perspectives on Race and Performance,” which she edited in 2006, Thompson says that “the universality and timelessness of the Bard’s works are often tested when actors of color are involved.”

Beginning in 1821, when the African Theatre in New York, a company comprised of and for ex-slaves and the sons of ex-slaves, put on a production of “Richard III” white critics ridiculed the black actors, Thompson said, writing that Shakespeare’s language was deemed “too difficult for these uneducated ex-slaves.”

A white audience member complained that it was too much for frail flesh and blood to see an absolute Negro strut in with so much dignity, bellowing forth.

Fast-forward to the 1960s. Critics of a multiracial casting of “Antony and Cleopatra” said: “Negro actors often lack even the rudiments of standard American speech” and “they do not look right in parts that historically demand white performers.”

Over that time span of 150 years, not much changed, Thompson says, and even today, “audiences don’t come to productions color-blind. We may desire to be a colorblind society, but we’re not there.”

She cites an example of Clarence Smith, a black actor who was cast as the King of France in the Royal Shakespeare’s colorblind production of “King Lear” in 1991.

A Frenchwoman in the all-white audience heckled the actor as he spoke his first lines, and continued yelling comments throughout the production. The woman explained that she thought it was “a disgrace that a black man was playing the King of France,” the actor later explained.

And when Denzel Washington played Brutus in a fairly recent Broadway production of “Julius Caesar” there was an audible gasp when he kissed the white actress who played his wife, Thompson said during an interview on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation.”

The Bard himself contributes to some awkward moments in supposedly colorblind productions of his works.

Shakespeare’s plays are “riddled with racist comments, both Jewish and black, that put the actor of color in an awkward position,” Thompson says. “Directors must decide, if they cast a black actor, for example, whether to take the offending line out.”

Reviewers also have difficulty sometimes with colorblind productions, Thompson noted in an article she wrote for Borrowers & Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation.

Thompson says, “Josette Simon, who made a name for herself playing classical theatrical roles in the 1980s and early 1990s, is quoted as saying, “I find critics calling me black Josette Simon, as if there were a white Josette Simon knocking about somewhere. They wouldn’t dream of talking about white Anthony Sher.’”

Will there be a time when colorblind casting  or what Thompson describes as the  “meritocratic model” in which “talent trumps all other aspects of an actor’s personhood” is the norm?

Lisa M. Anderson, an associate professor of women and gender studies and theater at ASU, wrote a chapter in “Colorblind Shakespeare” titled “When Race Matters: Reading Race in Richard III and Macbeth.”

She said that while the pursuit of an antiracist society and the eradication of the concept of white supremacy is vitally important, a world where skin color did not mean anything would not have a history in which race was a central category.

Race is not only about skin color, but it is a cultural construct, she said. As such, while racial dividing lines have been used to discriminate; they have also served to create an identity for those who are racialized.

Anderson said, “race mattered” in her high school drama club, “but not so much. The faculty advisors had no problem casting me in a role that did not specify someone of a particular race.” The high school musical theater club, however, “insulted” her by casting her as Bloody Mary in “South Pacific.”

And when she sought a role in her college’s summer theater, she was told there were no parts for black actresses that summer. “Enraged, I dropped my theatre major in favor of political science and vowed to become a playwright and write good roles for black women,” she said.

Today, “we remain acutely aware of race, and the privileges that a ‘lack’ of race (i.e.) whiteness bestows. We are unable to pretend that a black person, on stage or in a film, is not a black person.”

Thompson, herself an actress, said, “Although I did not know it at the time, I benefited from colorblind casting practices in high school and college. I played everything from an Angel in ‘Anything Goes’ to Marty Maraschino in ‘Grease.’ Thinking back to my teenage years, I know it would have been a bitter pill to swallow if I had been told that I could not play a ‘white character.’ I did not see race in acting roles; I only saw the roles themselves.

“In addition, I was and still am deeply committed to the idea that black actors and actresses should have as many opportunities as their white counterparts. Why should talented thespians like Denzel Washington, Halle Berry and Samuel L. Jackson have to wait around for specifically designated ‘black roles’?”

And Thompson says she, herself, does not want to be viewed in a “colorblind” manner.

“I wonder if being ‘blind’ to race and ethnicity is even desirable. Being black is so much a part of my identity that I am offended when people say they do not notice race, color or ethnicity. My race informs the way I experience the world in so many complex ways that I do not want it whited out or ‘e-raced’ by others.”