Ayanna Thompson challenges race in Shakespearean performances

Ayanna Thompson spoke at the Cabell Lecture Hall on Feb. 3. Photo by Ali Jones.
Ayanna Thompson spoke at the Cabell Lecture Hall on Feb. 3. Photo by Ali Jones.

“I don’t know how anyone, black or white in America, can stand up in front of an audience with a microphone and never mention it? It’s as if there’s an elephant in the room and it’s spraying out elephant diarrhea all over everyone and no one is mentioning it. It’s surreal.” -Paul Mooney

On Wednesday Feb. 3, VCU’s Humanities Research Center hosted an event, “Is Shakespeare Beyond Race?” featuring author and professor, Ayanna Thompson.

Thompson teaches English at George Washington University and is well known  for her critical analysis of the perception of race in the performance arts, especially surrounding the works of Shakespeare. She has written several books on the topic, most recently releasing, Teaching Shakespeare with Purpose: A Student Centered Approach in 2016.

“Like the Black American comedian, Paul Mooney, I find it impossible to ignore the shitting elephant in the room.” Thompson opens her lecture to a chuckling crowd.

“Notions, constructions and performances of race continue to define…our conceptions, performances and employments of Shakespeare. When I teach Shakespeare in my university classes, when I see a contemporary Shakespeare production on film, stage or the internet, when I hear or see allusions to Shakespeare in commercials, television shows and popular media – I see race. Whiteness, Blackness, Hispanicness, Asianess, the normatively raced, the deviantley raced.”

Thompson divided her lecture into two sections. Beginning with the history of Black Americans in Shakespeare and then transitioning into the role of race in the perception of the performing arts by guiding the audience through a “methodological discussion about how we should be asking questions about what audiences see.”

The role of Black Americans in Shakespeare is, according to Thompson, well documented but often ignored.

She begins by exploring the  the history of The African Grove Theater Company. Created by a free Black New York citizen, William Alexander Brown, the Company served as a space for Blacks artists to perform their craft and for other Blacks to appreciate the art. It was here that actors like James Hewlett and Ira Aldridge first got their exposure to the idea of Black bodies being part of the theater.

In the 20th century, Orson Welles directed the still critically acclaimed film version of Macbeth (1936). Set in the 19th century Caribbean, Welles was, according to Thompson, “directly invoking resonance between Macbeth and Haitian Emperor, Henri Christophe.”

Welles film was so popular it sold out every night in every theater across New York City for over five weeks and was especially popular in the city of Harlem.

Fast forward to 81 years after the release of Macbeth – what is the role of minorities at large in the Shakespearean performances?

“The assumption in both the U.S. and the U.K is that things have gotten better for actors of color in classical performance – and yet, the data doesn’t bear it out.” Thompson said. “We top off in both [countries] for professional productions of Shakespeare at 10 percent actors of color and it’s held steady for 40 years.”

Thompson believes that the next stage in understanding the relationship of minorities in Shakespeare is in the study of semiotics of race in performances: “The next wave of research will explore if and how an actor’s race is endowed with any meaning in a performance.”

Essentially there are mainly used types of casting. Blind casting assumes that audiences don’t see race, in conscious casting there is a decision made to try and create larger racial representation and in cross cultural casting directors apply a different historical timeline to a play.

According to Thompson the people in charge of reception studies avoid questions about race in theater and assume that audiences follow the Blind casting model. In reality, there is little reason to believe that racial assumption don’t impact the perception of the audience.

She closed her lecture by saying that she is advocating for a large comparative analyses of audience surveys.

“This data in aggregate may help to move us past the anecdote of one person statement to more subtle claims about rhetorical patterns regarding race’s impact on reception.”


Spectrum Editor

Siona Peterous. Photo by Julie TrippSiona Peterous
Siona is a senior majoring in political science with a concentration in international relations and a double minor in media studies and Arabic and Middle Eastern studies. She is heavily influenced by her family’s immigrant background and often writes about the intersection of politics with identity. Siona is an advocate for grassroots activism and political movements, and her dream job involves multimedia-based investigative journalism. She has a plethora of life goals but is only focusing on two right now: learning as many languages as possible and perfecting her Instagram aesthetic. peterous@commonwealthtimes.org

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