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– Sukla Basu Sen

Though this paper wishes to examine the Africanist presence in American Shakespeare productions, it is neither an exhaustive nor a thorough account. As I found out while reading for it, the subject needs to be researched more fully—and done in the right way–could easily lead to a book-length treatise.

The Coloured actor of the American stage

However, the paper also talks about the ways by which the ‘coloured’ other was incorporated in Shakespeare’s vision of a predominantly Caucasian world with the British audience developing a complex love-hate relationship with bodies not white. The dramatist’s own responses, apart from the aesthetic business ones, is difficult to judge. We would all love the playwright to be a twenty-first century, East-coast American, registered Democrat, first aiding Obama’s campaign, then being disappointed, justifying to himself and fellow-thinkers his stance, by imagining what the Republican attitude would have done to the Moor, the Egyptian, and the male of monstrous growth, Caliban, when the infamous Obamacare dare not lift beggars off the street into hospitals, a practice that the health service in a Third World country like India will happily allow.

Shakespeare’s audience loved to believe in myths, prophesies and oracles. They feasted on the audio-visual delights provided by an Arab lover, ranting Jew and half-fish American. Cleopatra could be of any colour provided she resemble the lascivious Queen of Scots, so righteously beheaded by Elizabeth, her cousin, and Aaron would be in flesh what Macbeth the Scot could not resemble in skin colour—black, villain and hero.


Engraving of Ira Aldridge as Aaron in ‘Titus and Andronicus.’ c. 1850

America, which speaks the same language as Shakespeare did, appropriated his plays and suited it to its minority causes, for Jews and African Americans have co-existed and continued to do so in a strangely “cribb’d, cabined, confined” relationship in the inner spaces of cities and corridors of power in the Pentagon. Caliban is not only fruit of a foul and knotted union between the old and the new worlds – he is the bedevilled colonized icon making it unsafe for America to have colonizer presences elsewhere in the world, except for to have the world as an economic empire.

Drama on the stage is very much the play about actor’s bodies, white, black, brown, yellow and an endless combination of all these. In America it will have to be a white/Anglo-Saxon/Nordic presence contrasted with ‘other’ people of colour. Shakespeare’s own stage used the bodies of young men to portray a Juliet of fourteen or a Cleopatra of forty five, who should have been (but was not) a black African lady. The Moors on the Renaissance stage would have been portrayed in black face, as Sir Lawrence Oliver, among celebrated others, would be doing in the last century. But in Elizabeth’s England there already was in existence a small but irritating coloured community. Their numbers sufficiently discomfited Elizabeth to order the removal of “Negros” and “Blackamoors”, who had crept into her realm, to the annoyance of her own people. Many of Shakespeare’s plays expressed an interest in topics that trouble our conscience in our present-day context, —anti-Semitism, anti-feminism, and racism. He writes at precisely that moment when the new world was being colonized and slaves from Africa were being exported to Europe and America for the first time to boost development of new resources for the European economy. The ideas and ideologies of race and racism were being constructed to justify the exploitation and enslavement of human beings which Shakespeare’s observant eye recorded and analyzed such phenomena for all times to come. Five of his plays incorporate black characters – Aaron the Moor in Titus and Andronicus, Othello in the play which is subtitled ‘The Moor of Venice’, Cleopatra the Egyptian Queen – she herself is ‘Egypt’— Caliban of The Tempest whose witch mother is from Algiers and the Prince of Morocco who appears with the other ‘Other’ – Shylock the Jew in The Merchant of Venice. Aaron and Cleopatra are ancient Africans. Othello and Morocco are Shakespeare’s contemporaries and Caliban is the reminder of the horrifying future awaiting African Europeans and African Americans with the rise of the institution of slavery. Ironically, Shakespeare worked in the theatre even before the first slave landed in Jamestown, and he might not have anticipated that an authentic tragedy for Africans would play out on the ‘stage’ of the newly ‘discovered’ continent over the next 400 years, or that his plays would be a continuing touchstone of progress or lack thereof, on and off the world of the theatre. Both Jews and Blacks being minorities in England, it is surprising that theatrical stereotypes should so soon form and become popular. Yet, given a sympathetic representation, Shylock could be seen as a grieving widower and bemused parent and the Moor in Venetian society had already achieved and economic and social status comparable to any merchant of European origin in a society which prized bravery in war and riches in a native land so that non-Europe could be seen contributing to European glory. America is the third player in the field and a striking confluence of cultures takes place in the nineteenth century when the African American Ira Aldridge plays Shylock in Russia “so sympathetically that the Jewish community thanked him silently for interpretation of a character that Jews have usually condemned as inimical to their race.” (Web. 17.10.13)

In contrasting ways, Blacks and Jews lived close to, yet apart from white Christian society. Moors, Barbary Coast captives, Egyptians as well as Spaniards and Portuguese, and even the Italian were recognised to be different from the pale British Islanders, South Asians, pre-Columbian Americans and blacks were interchangeable in the Elizabethan popular mind. G.K.Hunter in “Elizabethan and Foreigners” notes that people from outside England lived “between the xenophobic poles of fear and derision.” Jews were an actually absent people, an “invisible people who functioned as symbolic tokens of all that was heartless, vicious, rapacious and unnatural…” The two groups shared a common geographical space – the commercial world in Venice. Thus Shakespeare’s two plays, written ten years apart, performed in England and later in America, dramatised as recognisable stereotypes, people and groups with whom white Christians would like forever to maintain a cultural distance. Both Jews and Africans carried the burden of being considered the ‘other’ and in the playhouse, were relegated to the two roles, Othello and Shylock, that specially when played in caricature, reinforced stereotypes.

Shakespeare has been credited by Harold Bloom with “the invention of human.” He thus became the writer for African Americans, enslaved or freed, the first resort for self-expression in the theatre. Also, to perform Shakespeare, an African American actor feels is the most pointed way to establish his/her ability to comprehend and represent human experience at the highest level of European culture. Bloom talks about the development of character in drama in synchronized meditation of the ability to “reconceive” itself. African Americans, whose identity or destiny were for so long in the minds and hands of others, had at first to conceive of themselves as human, convey this truth to the deniers, to re-conceive a panoply of individuation from this essential understanding. Bloom projects Shakespeare’s plays as vehicles for establishing and transmitting the idea of humanity for they “remain the outward limit of human achievement: essentially cognitively, in certain ways, morally even spiritually.” (Web. 17.10.13) The African American devotion to the Bible is linked in turn to an appreciation of Shakespeare. Any biographical study of a coloured actor can indicate this path from religious homes to the pulpit, held by fathers or mentors, to the stage, then on to political activism Witness the career graphs of Ira Aldridge, Asa Philip Randolph, and Paul Robeson.


Paul Robeson as Othello. 1944. Photograph: Carl van Rechten

Shakespeare productions in America have often acted as the crucible of understanding African American heritage and English Literature. The earliest recorded black performances were at the Grove Theatre, founded and operated by free African Americans in NY City in 1821, six years before enslavement of blacks fully ended in NY State. Also called the African Company, it played with a black cast and crews to mostly black audiences. It was the third of at least four attempts to create a black theatre in the city, and the most successful. Founded by William Alexander Brown and James Hewlett, both ships’ stewards, well-travelled and more perceptive than the average New Yorker, it opened up vistas of entertainment and enlightenment before its perceptive viewers.

The theatre’s repertoire drew heavily on Shakespeare punctuated with comic interludes. Whites were segregated, as they “do not know how to conduct themselves at entertainments for ladies and gentlemen of colour.”(Web 17.10.13) The most popular plays were Richard III and Othello in which Hewlett was the first blackman of record to play the lead role.

As was common in the nineteenth century, American productions made adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. In a 1821 production of Richard III “a dapper, woolly haired waiter at the city Hotel personated the royal Plantagenet in robes made up from discarded merino curtains of the ballroom. Owing to the smallness of the company King Henry and the Duchess were played by one person, and Lady Anne and Catesby by another.” The Grove it seems had already appropriated the Elizabethan practice of cross-dressing and the future twentieth century practice of gender-neutered and colour blend casting. However there was stiff hostility from white theatre. The Park Theatre- New York’s leading theatre of the time – put on Richard III starring the English Tragedian Junius Brutus Booth. The Grove rented a hall next door to stage the same play the same night. The owner of the Park orchestrated and paid for disturbance of the rival productions so that the police would shut down the Grove.

And shut down it did in 1823, but not before Ira Aldridge had performed variously in Shakespearean plays achieving fame nationally and internationally in America and Europe from here on.

Scroll down to April 14, 1936. Place – Lafayette Theatre Harlem, NY, producers –Federal Theatre Projects NY production of Macbeth, commonly nicknamed Voodoo Macbeth. An all African American cast, directed by Orson Welles played out the tragedy in the fictional Caribbean island based on Haiti and used voodoo imagery in place of the witchcraft in the original. The production is regarded as the landmark event in American theatre for primarily three reasons: its new interpretations of the play, its successful promotion of African-American theatre and glory for its twenty year old director.

This play was the part of the Works Project Administration which was an attempt at stimulating economic growth during the Great Depression. Federal Project Number one was responsible for generating jobs in the arts. It was segmented into the “Contemporary Branch” to create theatre on contemporary black issues and the “Classic Branch” which was to perform Classic Drama. It was also to provide pride in community when Classic plays would be performed with no reference to the colour of the actors.

Now any Shakespearean play staged in our own country would not be expected to cater to an audience choice or preference for white face. However, records of Shakespeare’s plays translated into Bengali at the turn of the last century on the Kolkata stage would have/did have Oberon, Titania, Theseus and Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Portia and Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice in faux western costumes and western looking actors/actresses . Performing the Bard was also a hegemonic challenge to the college and university teaching and performances and the best of the local talents would be harnessed to secure success on the boards. But for the young Welles who was white and the crew who were black and often much older, it was a question of establishing or erasing a racist hierarchy. However, although some of the other white and prominent technicians of the troupe had problems with the young and ambitious director, like Abe Feder, one of the first full-time lighting designers, the black cast and crew members interviewed decades later said that they felt included in the creative process.

Welles had decided to perform the text straight but to use costumes and sets that alluded to Haiti in the nineteenth century, specifically during the reign of the slave-turned emperor Henri Christophe. This gave the plays the rationale for an all-black caste and it is one of those singular cases of a mixed-caste production to cast colour as a character. Thus the play remains as Shakespearean as American and Welles’. 1948 film version of Macbeth would also retain these strengths. It was also a gender neuter casting in the sense that Hecate was performed by Eric Burroughs as a huge man with the line ‘the charms wound up’ at the end of the play transferred from Act I, thus recreating the charm of the play as illusion.

There were few professional African American actors available at that time and many of the cast members had never acted in plays before. Welles however believed that they showed a better understanding of the rhythm of iambic pentameter than many professionals. Welles also hired a team of African drummers, some of whom were knowledge-able about voodoo practices, to accompany the witches’ speeches with drumbeats. After its Harlem run, the play also had a brief run on Broadway before touring local high schools. It then toured the country. Two light faced actors used colour to make themselves indistinguishable from the rest of the cast and Welles claimed he acted one night in black face in the absence of a crew member. The production was also invited to London, but Welles declined as he was trying to secure a career in New York.

Using the 1936 prompt-book the play has been revived by several producers till only recently. This goes on to show that not only is Macbeth one of the best Shakespearean plays that gain new life in adaptations but Shakespeare himself gives life in ways, not conceived of originally, to race pride and racial acculturation with nary a non-white character in the script.

Cut back to the nineteenth century and think Ira Aldridge. Born in 1807 in the New York City he took an early interest in Shakespeare performance. The success of the Grove Theatre incited jealousy and legal actions by rival groups but not before Aldridge made his first stage appearance as Romeo. As the historian Errol Hill reminds us “…the determination of the white theatre establishment at this early date to keep Afro-American performances out of the theatrical mainstream was prophetic of its attitude for generation to come.”(Web. 17.10.13) Ira saw the writing on the wall, so to speak, and departed to Europe before his eighteenth birthday. His acting career was spread over 40 years and he travelled to Vienna, Budapest, Prague, Munich, Stockholm, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Constantinople, Warsaw and Paris. What many of us do know is that critics in London were loath to see a black man as Othello who both kisses and murders Desdemona. Aldridge’s performance as a power figure of colour took place primarily in the country side. He extended the role of the black man from playing Othello, Morocco and the Moor Aaron to that of Richard III, Shylock, Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear. He also contributed to the evolution of Shakespeare acting from high ranting to more naturalistic acting. In Moscow, he won accolades as he “…concentrates all one’s attention only on the inner meaning of his speech…and moved about completely naturally not like a tragedian, but like a human being… .” (Web 17.10.13)


Lithograph of Ira Aldridge as Othello c. 1854

When Aldridge was being recognized as both artist and human being, African Americans were still enslaved in most parts of America. Even free subjects were often the target of random slave catchers emboldened by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. With the end of the Civil War, Aldridge gave serious thought to returning to his homeland. He died in 1867 in Poland. However, his hope to heap the benefits of his considerable talent on his own people would considerably have been cut short for the only roles available to the black performers were on the minstrel stage. Inter-racial casting was nonexistent and there were no black companies with which he could work. Aldridge died a British citizen but numerous theatre companies in the US took his name as tribute to his worldwide fame and a memorial is to be found in the city of the Bard’s birth testifying to the union of dramatic poesy and black art.

Henrietta Vinton Davis, born in 1860 in Baltimore studied elocution with a white tutor in Washington DC. She embarked on her promising but ultimately frustrating journey by travelling across the country. She performed readings of speeches by Rosalind, Cleopatra, Juliet , Portia, Ophelia, Lady Ann, and Lady Macbeth . She advertised herself as the first lady of her race to publicly assay a debut on Shakespeare. In collaborating with another black actor, Powhatan Beaty, she performed scenes from Macbeth in Cincinnati and invited high praise from spectators and critics. Yet a combination of preparation, hard work, recognition by critics, a triumphant performance in Washington D.C., graced by distinguished actors, selected Howard University players and Frederick Douglass himself could not bring her to the legitimate stage and despite all her efforts, the doors to established theatre remained closed. Since nineteenth century America was not quite an Elizabethan England, she did not suffer the fictive fate of Shakespeare’s imagined sister, Judith of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. However, Henrietta moved on to social service. Then she joined the efforts of Marcus Garvey to lift the lives of African American and she died in 1941 after holding leadership positions and giving sporadic theatrical performances till her death.

Asa Randolph was the son of a former slave and itinerant minister. Born in Florida in 1889, he showed early promise in debate and was engaged in rehearsing scenes from Shakespeare and presenting them, at least on Sunday afternoons once a month, before community audiences at the Salem Methodist Church. As a purely individual endeavour he worked to memorize every line from Othello, Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice. Randolph perfected his already powerful voice, and taking elocution lessons on the side, acquired the faint accent that led people to believe that he had been to Oxford or Cambridge. As his were, like Henrietta’s, stand-alone performances, when he arrived at a point where his two alternative choices were the stage or political ambitions, he opted for the latter and became the publisher of a radical journal, The Messenger. The quashed hopes of a Shakespeare aspirant, however, was an indication of what he gave up for the political good of African Americans , a contribution to the opening of doors to later generation of professional actors.

Born in 1898, Paul Robeson was also the son of a former slave and pastor, who went on to achieve outstanding academic success in school and in college at Rutgers. He also went to the law school with hopes of rising to the Supreme Court. Profoundly disappointed in his job as a lawyer when his white female secretary declared that she would not take dictations from a black man, Robeson decided to appear in a play at Broadway. Rapturous crowds responded to his performances in Showboat, concerts of spirituals and opera, and Othello. Robeson played the Moor in London, 1930, in New York 1943, and Stratford-on-Avon in 1959.
Othello was frequently performed as an Arab Moor during the nineteenth century. He was first played by a black man on the London stage in 1833 by Ira Aldridge. The first major screen production would not come until 1995 with Lawrence Fishburne as Othello and Kenneth Branagh as Iago.

‘Othello,’ the 1995 film version. Laurence Fishburne as Othello and Kenneth Branagh as Iago

With Othello being performed by white actors in black face or in black mask – names include Ralph Richardson (1937), John Gelgud (1961), Laurence Olivier (1964), Antony Hopkins (1981), these followed the ground breaking American performance directed by Margaret Webster in 1943 starring Paul Robeson as Othello and Jose Ferrer as Iago. This production in America was the first ever in the country to feature a black actor playing Othello with an otherwise white cast. It ran for 296 performances, almost twice as long as any other Shakespearean play ever produced on Broadway. Never filmed, it was recorded, first as multi- record 78rmp set and then on a 3 LP one. This role Robeson had performed in 1931 London , with Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona and Ralph Richardson as Roderigo and would return to it in1959 at Stratford-on-Avon with co-stars Mary Ure, Sam Namabaker and Vanessa Redgrave. British blacking up for Othello ended with Gambon in 1990. The Royal Shakespeare Company did not run the play at all till 1999 when Ray Fearon became the first black British actor to play Othello since Paul Robeson.

Patrick Stewart played the role of Othello with Shakespeare Theatre Company, 1997 in a race-bending performance in a “photo-negative” production of a white Othello with an otherwise all-black cast, so that it became a comment on the trauma of a white man entering a black society . The interpretation of the role is now widening with Othello being cast as a women or inverting the gender of the whole cast in order to explore gender concerns of Shakespeare’s text.

Welles’ film (1952) produced a black and white film noir – The Tragedy of Othello the Moor of Venice. It has Welles as Othello and Suzanne Cloutier as Desdemona . The film won the Palme D’Or at the 1952 Cannes festival but it was not about racial mismatching. The film noir colouring of the picture minimized any commentary on Othello’s blackness, to the point that F.R Leavis wrote that the film made no reference to Othello’s colour. This element of ubiquitous humanness without reference to race would later make it possible for the Hindi film Omkara to succeed. However, in the Americas of the pre and post-World War years, nothing could save Robeson from the audiences who could not abide the vicious race mixing and there was the instance when a fellow elevator passenger spit on him while he was in the company of Uta Hagen, his co-star. It was outside America, in Europe and with the communist party membership gained as a romantic association of the arts with the Soviet Union, that Robeson found the appreciation for his magnificent voice and acting skills.

But presences do not preclude absence. One such towering figure who does not act Shakespeare is Sidney Poiter who would not play Othello for startling reasons. Poiter began to be criticized for being typecast as over-idealized black characters who were not permitted to have any sexuality or personality faults, such as his character in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinnner. Poiter was aware of this pattern himself, but was in conflict over this matter. He wanted more roles and varied ones too, but also felt obliged to set a good example with his characters to defy previous stereotypes, as he was the only major black actor in the American film industry. In 1966 he turned down an opportunity to play the lead in an NBC production of Othello with that spirit in mind.

The race situation is still problematic in America with large cities in the north and east still practising virtual segregation and the black artist has still to cater to a race-conscious audience. But what we can say at the end of the day is that race profiling in Shakespeare’s days has provided the African American with the right to interpret dramatic tensions in his own way – although solutions to the multiple problems race has engendered lie well beyond the scope of drama. Here, in Kolkata or in Santiniketan, or Burdwan or Siliguri, we could apply this racial mixture in Shakespeare’s comedies. For example the Athenian craftsmen in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a wood near Athens would be presented as black, brown or yellow to give a spur to the high culture/low culture debate that permeates the play. It is usually insufficient knowledge about the ‘other’ that creates these schisms and perhaps such performances would not only give us a cutting edge on dramaturgy but also provide conciliatory images of alterity in society.

Works Cited

Dowdall, Barbara Mc Dowell. “African Americans and Shakespeare : Partners in Search of Humanity” <www.teachers.yale.edu/curriculam/vieneer/initiative- 09.03.08_u> Accessed on 17/10/13.