On Shakespeare and Cultural Identity

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In 2011, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival produced Carlyle Brown’s play The African Company Presents Richard III, which recounts the historic 1821 staging of Shakespeare’s Richard III by America’s first African-American theater company. Carlyle was invited to speak at the festival, and an excerpt of his remarks was recently published in the Star Tribune:

When Oregon Shakespeare Festival artistic director Bill Rauch called to tell me that the festival was producing “African Company,” I asked him why. I’m a writer so I am curious about these things.

Bill told me that some patrons were puzzled by the appearance of black actors in Shakespeare’s plays and hoped that “The African Company” would open up that discussion. This was very gratifying to me because I always wanted the play to be useful.

I believe that all actors’ training is culturally based. The actor is trying to inhabit the archetypal persona of his/her culture. For African-American actors in American acting conservatories, where the Western canon and Western aesthetics are the basis for training and discourse, there is a chasm that separates the African-American actor from his/her true potential, because the African-American in American society is both part and not a part of the culture. This paradox is the dilemma that is at the root of American identity, race relations and our social and political history.

As an African-American playwright I feel that it is my duty and responsibility to create plays and roles that compensate for the lack of our own conservatories; to shape opportunities for African-American actors to inhabit more than handkerchief-head stereotypes and the usual urban suspects, but rather to reveal to all the deeper resources of our culture and our contributions to our national identity and to humanity.

Africa speaks with many voices
If you travel down the West Coast of Africa, as I have, you will find such a cacophony of languages, cultures and ethnicities so different from each other that the categorization “African” becomes meaningless.

Coming to these shores, the Africans had only three commonalities: the color of their skin (black), the state of their condition (slavery) and the need to learn a new language (English). So what do they do to endure and survive?

Well, they do what is natural to humankind, they make culture. They make it because it is in our nature. Spiders make webs, bees make honey and people make culture. But how and what culture should they make? The existing Euro-American culture was of little use to them; they were trying to make culture themselves.

They couldn’t use their former cultures because, like the banning of drums and drumming, much of their former cultural practices were against the law. They had to make something new and they had to make it subversively. They had to make culture in a world where culture was denied them.

We now know that the culture these Africans began to make would become the most distinctive, enduring and original elements of American culture. Music, language, social style, you name it, if you take the Africanism out of American culture what have you got? I myself cannot imagine what that would be.

Enter Shakespeare, stage right
But why Shakespeare? I asked myself as I began the journey of writing “African Company.” And the more I thought about it the more it became perfectly clear why Shakespeare. With Shakespeare they can actively learn the peculiarities and subtleties of the new language. They learn to organize themselves around a singular endeavor.

The plays give them a structure to explore their own allusive forms. And Shakespeare gives them cover so as not to appear to be engaged in any activity that might remotely be construed as rebellious. Doing the plays must have been a way to imagine the unimaginable, to have a sense of possibility, and to dare to dream, crave and desire to have the power to have sovereignty over one’s own life.

Across town at New York’s white and powerful Park Theater, producer Stephen Price was putting up his own “Richard III” in 1821. In Price’s view the African Company’s productions were nothing more than imitative performances of a bunch of woolly headed inmates from the city’s kitchens and pantries, but what the blacks were doing was nothing short of something new and original and remarkable and soon Stephen Price would come to regard it as tantamount to an act of rebellion.

Two separate societies, each searching for their individual cultural identities — one white, one black; one rich, the other lowly; one with resources, the other resourceful. It is as if they were cultural combatants on a cultural dueling ground and the black duelist was asked to choose a weapon — or play, as it were. And the black duelist replied, “My weapon of choice is ‘The Tragedy of King Richard III’ by William Shakespeare.”

Finding their own story in the play
“The Tragedy of King Richard III” must have been a play that was deeply accessible to them. They were not imitating anybody; they were making something bold and completely new.

This disparate group of former African people taken in chains to a strange new land was making a journey of self-discovery and cultural affirmation. One might say that the beginnings of what it means to be African-American started more as an idea than a biological reality.

Performing in a play where they portrayed kings and queens, noblemen and noble ladies countered the narrative of slavery and opened a door to a new narrative of their own.

This to me is a marvelous true story. A story as beautiful and universal as all the stories of the making of culture, of the making of a people as all the stories ever told of culture-making, from antiquity to this present moment. It speaks to the power of the creative force.

A timeless message
This is why Shakespeare is great. Writing for his time, for a 16th-century English audience, he gave them their history for understanding their contemporary context, comedies for laughter, tragedies to embrace their grief, insight and the worship of nature, and still if Shakespeare belonged to anybody, he belongs to everybody.

We now live in an era that is reflective of early 19th-century America. We are becoming a world as our early American world began, as a multicultural world. We are living in a world where artists, at the very least anyway, are making culture out of cultures. And we are seeing in the world today not just a clash of cultures, but unification.

Who owns Shakespeare? one might ask. You might as well ask who has the right to breathe, to dream, to express their selves, to be themselves, to live in and make a meaningful contribution to their world. I submit to you that as human beings this is an obligation and responsibility for all of us.