In “An Octoroon,” the character BJJ complains about the plight of being a Black playwright.
“I can’t even wipe my ass until someone accuses me of solving the race problem in America,” writes Branden Jacobs-Jenkins in his Obie Award-winning play.
Shortly after, an actor playing Dion Boucicault gets into a drunken tirade. Boucicault is a 19th century Irishman who wrote the play “The Octoroon” with riffs by Jacobs-Jenkins.
“You don’t even know who I am,” he scribbles, “a world-renowned playwright.” He continues, “Every 10 seconds you play one of Shakespeare’s bullshit.”
While Boucicault isn’t the most pleasant or socially conscious messenger, he (and Jacobs-Jenkins) is right. Every year when the American Theater releases its list of the season’s 10 Most Produced Plays and 20 Most Produced Playwrights, William Shakespeare is “set aside” for always coming out on top.
Certainly, neither Shakespeare nor Boucicault lived up to the expectations BJJ described in his opening monologue. Despite this, scholars and movements in Shakespeare studies currently engage Shakespeare’s plays in dialogue with systemic racial inequality in America. If theater is a field that accelerates political change as well as entertaining, as playwrights like Jacobs-Jenkins hoped, what role, if any, does Shakespeare’s age-old canon play in its relation to today’s racial justice movements? How can we read, produce, and enact Shakespeare’s plays in a way that centers on Black lives?
For the past two years, I have been searching for answers to these questions in my “Black Lives in Shakespeare” course at William & Mary. The class pairs five of their plays with the works of contemporary Black playwrights, whose games consider transformative racial change very specifically. My students and I have read these plays with Black scholars to explore the question of Shakespeare’s continuing relevance to “whatever you learn from the theatre,” as Jacobs-Jenkins put it in the monologue cited above: “Sympathy? Compassion? Do you understand?”
Black theater artists—and for centuries—“help Shakespeare speak,” so bringing contemporary plays about racial justice into direct conversation with Shakespeare in our classrooms, theaters, and talkbacks continues this work.
The most obvious way to bring black playwrights into conversation with Shakespeare is to produce and teach adaptations. In my “Black Lives in Shakespeare” and “Black Playwrights” classes, I teach a unit on adaptations of “Othello” starring Keith Hamilton Cobb’s “American Moor” and Toni Morrison’s “Desdemona”. Morrison’s play, for example, takes as a starting point Desdemona’s mother’s maid, Barbary – a name meaning “stranger” and evoking the shores of North Africa – and the willow song that she died singing as powerful suggestions from a ghost hovering in the air. In the margins of “Othello”. This ghost joins the myth of a Black maidservant who wholeheartedly cares for the legacy of derogatory icons of Black women, particularly the “mother” trope and her master’s children.
“Myths are more than just made-up stories,” academic and activist Dorothy Roberts tells us. “Furthermore, they are tightly held beliefs that represent and attempt to explain what we perceive to be true. Even in the face of airtight statistics and rational arguments to the contrary, they can become more reliable than reality by clinging to it.”
Shakespeare’s canon is replete with these myths and figures that often seem “more believable than reality,” and contemporary plays can help us see the work these figures do in our cultural imagination. “Desdemona” takes this myth and transforms it to illuminate Barbary, a character often overlooked in stage productions of “Othello”, which Morrison renames as Sa’ran.
In my scholarship and teaching, I take care to deal with ghosts like Barbary in Shakespeare – and teaching him alongside plays by Black playwrights that have more thematic overlaps as opposed to direct adaptations helps me do just that.
Teaching Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Venus” and “The Merchant of Venice”, I center the figure of a abused, pregnant Black woman transitioning from man to man, clown to clown – a figure at the heart of “Venus”. Person who appears only briefly in Shakespeare’s play. Parks’ play paints a fictional Sarah Baartman, consumed by white society, handed over from one abuser to another. An “Entertainer Ana” steals Hottentot Venus’ tips after she plays in freak shows. A doctor reads a catalog of body parts during a break, foreshadowing future experiments. Despite being scrutinized by doctors for gynecological information, Baartman is forced to abort the two children she conceived from Baron Docteur (Parks nods to French scientist Georges Cuvier, whose work promotes scientific racism). Even the “Negro Revivalist”, who accompanies Venus in time, betrays her in the final scenes.
“The possibilities of bringing black playwrights into conversation with Shakespeare are truly endless.”
Similarly, in an exchange that is often cut from “The Merchant of Venice” productions, Shylock’s new Christian son-in-law, Lorenzo, cuts off an exchange between his recently converted wife, Jessica, and Launcelot. the clown questioning this transformation. Jessica informs her husband about this form of interrogation, and Lorenzo tells Launcelot that he has no right to tell his wife that “in heaven… he will have no mercy” because Launcelot himself impregnated a Black woman.
“I will answer the nigger’s belly up better than you can; Moor is pregnant with you, Launcelot,” warns Lorenzo.
“Moor is too much to be more than logic; but if she is less than an honest woman, she is indeed more than I thought her, ”replies Launcelot.
Centering this marginal pregnant, Black woman in “The Merchant of Venice” is a radical rewriting of the play and what scholars and theater practitioners focus on. In one of the only extended considerations of this Black woman with a scholarship on Shakespeare, Kim Hall argues that “this pregnant, unheard of, nameless and (at least by critics) unseen Black woman may be a silent symbol of economic and social life. The racial politics of The Merchant of Venice.” ‘” Yet this exchange is often glossed over in classrooms, left out of productions. Bringing Shakespeare into conversation with Parks, however, brings “Moorish and child” into sharp focus. Just like Parks’ Venus in the game world. “unheard of, nameless, and unseen” as such, it does not need to be marginalized in our world today.
The possibilities for engaging black playwrights in conversation with Shakespeare are truly endless: Jeremy O. Harris’ “Slave Game” invented “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy.” It is described as “a radical therapy designed to help black partners re-establish close relationships with white partners they no longer enjoy sexually”. This idea causes us to read the relationships between Black men and white women quite differently in “Othello” and “Titus Andronicus.”
Harris’ play invites us to imagine the productions and class discussions of Othello and Desdemona, who hesitate to admit their love for each other as it seems, and to see Desdemona’s persistent pleas to go to bed as a sign. Possible fetishization of Othello’s sexuality.
When I read “Slave Play” while chatting with “Othello”, I wonder if Desdemona took pity on Othello for the “dangers”. [he] In “Titus Andronicus,” I think more deeply about Tamora’s desire for the “insatiable and luxurious” for the Moor the Moor. In American literature, interracial relations, as Morrison teaches us in “Playing in the Dark” (1992), ” forest fire blight”. As you read Harris talking to Shakespeare, it becomes clear how important it is to evaluate these historical touches over time. (I love the idea of falling in love with someone because of the stories they tell, and after Tamora’s “fun” with Aaron is over. ‘ then I value the “golden sleep” he dreams of. .)
Besides “Titus Andronicus” I teach “Fairview” by Jackie Sibblies Drury. While the plays have been written over the centuries and are very different, the characters Aaron and Keisha battle against the narratives given to them by the white society. Aaron is far from being a hero in “Titus Andronicus” – he sows the seeds of Lavinia’s rape, kills a nurse, cuts off Titus’ son’s hands and sends them back to him. However, this violence is a response to the “white chalky walls” that enslave her, trying to turn her beloved son into a “disgusting frog”. Aaron resists the narratives told about him; takes them and turns them over their heads.
“Is black a very basic tone?” Aaron asks the Nurse, who describes her child as “a joyless, gloomy, black, and mournful problem” – “coal black is better than any other shade.” In the closing monologue, Aaron sings my favorite line of the play: “Why should wrath be mute and anger mute? … I’m not a baby.”
Similarly, Keisha finds herself trapped in the narratives whites tell about her – those who tell her “every story”. [she has] I’ve never heard of.” That she would become pregnant when she was young, that her father was a cheater and gambler and was about to lose their home, that her mother used drugs. None of this is true, but when Keisha rejects Suze’s suffocating care as her grandmother, she realizes she can’t get over these stories until the end of the play.
“I want to take care of the baby,” Suze begs, while Keisha replies, “No baby.”
Drury’s capitalization of this phrase emphasizes that Keisha is not pregnant, but also that Keisha, like Aaron, is not a baby – she doesn’t need to deal with Suze’s “noisy self”, “noisy eyes” and “noisy guilt”. Referring to the audience, the white audience of the play, “Do I need to keep talking to them?”
It’s probably true that black playwrights often felt the same way when conversing with his seemingly inescapable presence, Shakespeare. But these plays, which I play alongside Shakespeare, have an extraordinary faith in their audiences. They produce transformative speeches.
“If we can create space and time to learn and listen, we can stop racism in the theater and in our lives,” Hall says in the foreword to “American Moor.”
Yet it is difficult to create this place and time if we do not listen to what Black voices tell us, directly or indirectly, about Shakespeare’s plays. This is what contemporary Black playwrights have taught me – as Cobb writes in “The American Moor,” Shakespeare is in some ways only as good as he speaks in this “American form.”
These conceptual connections aren’t always obvious, and it’s not easy to incorporate these plays into conversation between centuries and landscapes. But as Cobb’s actor told the audience: “God knows I’m not an easy person…but there was never a future worth having.”