The Saturday events at Folger Theatre’s Reading Room Festival gave me the opportunity to enjoy four, thought-provoking events which each dealt, each in their own way, with issues of racial representation as they relate to Shakespeare’s works.
The first of these events was an anti-racism conversation entitled, “Casting Shakespeare in a Contemporary World.” Kaja Dunn, Associate Professor at Carnegie Mellon University and Folger Theatre’s Resident Intimacy and Cultural Consultant, led the discussion as moderator. Joining her as panelists were Jorge Acevedo, a casting director at Signature Theatre, and Nikkole Salter, an accomplished actress and writer.
In only an hour of dialogue, these artists were able to provide a great deal of insight into this complex topic. The panelists were critical of the current “hierarchical” structures as something that tended to foster gate-keeping and to keep the power to make casting and other important artistic decisions in the hands of those groups who have historically held it. The panelists also discussed the difficulty of trying to create work that authentically expresses their identity yet that remains “entertaining” and accessible enough to be commercially viable.
This particular issue was further investigated in the following event, a half-hour discussion focusing more specifically on “Shakespeare and Stereotypes” for which Dunn returned as a panelist. She was joined by Carla Della Gatta, a scholar whose work includes an online archive of Latinx adaptations of Shakespearean and other classic plays. Serving as moderator was Dr. Carol Mejia LaPerle, a Professor and Honors Advisor for the Department of English at Wright State University.
Acknowledging the impossibility of creating theatrical work that avoids all reference to stereotype, the three focused on ways to navigate stereotypes without perpetuating harmful bias. Especially when portraying characters from historically marginalized groups, artists would do well to consider their work in relation to its larger cultural context, which can help them identity detrimental narratives they can then avoid reinforcing.
The panelists also noted how necessary it is to continually question the way that stereotypes influence our thoughts about how classical plays like Shakespeare’s “should” be performed. Who’s to say, for instance, that standard “received pronunciation” should be the only acceptable accent for Shakespearean characters? That Juliet has to look like every other ingenue, or Romeo a conventional leading man? In fact, who says that Romeo has to be played by a man at all?
While the rise of “colorblind casting” has broadened the scope of which actors are “allowed” to appear in which Shakespearean roles, characters who are specifically indicated to be a certain ethnicity tend to be the exception to this rule. In a bold theatrical experiment “Six Othellos,” the festival’s next event, Dr. John “Ray” Proctor dares to ask what insight might be gained from questioning these conventions. Presented in the style of an “open rehearsal,” the piece began with an introduction by Proctor in which he explains his fascination with the idea that casting a “classic” play non-traditionally could serve to change its meaning without changing the text.
After giving us a bit of background on “Othello” and how its lead character has historically been portrayed, Proctor invites a pair of actors to the stage to perform Act 3, Scene 3 in its conventional Black male Othello/White male Iago configuration. Though the two delivered a powerful rendition, I was far more engaged by a second performance of the scene, in which two women got a chance to take on the traditionally male parts.
With Asian-American actress Regina King playing Othello to the White Kimberly Gilbert’s Iago, a racial difference remained between the characters, but now seemed to take almost a back seat to a new subtextual narrative that had more to do with her gender. Though this Othello was no less commanding, she was more collected—the kind of woman who has learned to well-conceal the weaknesses that she knows will be weaponized against her. Because Desdemona remains a “she,” the jealousy of this Othello also gains an entirely different character as she fears her female lover might abandon her for a man. Iago’s antics, of course, only stoke these suspicions but the character’s mechanisms seem vastly more persuasive when she can take the form of a sisterly confidante. Similar shades of complexity were created in the pairing of Black actress Andreá Bellamore’s Othello with non-binary actor Tsaitami Duchicela’s Iago. It was one more charged combination of actors that revealed yet another layer of potential in the centuries-old script.
But what could perhaps be called the cherry on top of this Shakespearean Saturday was the final event of the day—a wholly original bard-inspired work entitled “How Shakespeare Saved My Life.” This autobiographical “epic poem” told in “verse, rhyme, and song” was written by Jacob Ming-Trent, who, backed only by a live band, also performs the entire piece himself. Between his witty wordsmithing, his comedic chops, and his off-the-charts charisma, it didn’t seem to take long for Ming-Trent to win over the crowd. Throughout the show, he also kept audience members engaged by addressing them directly and occasionally even inviting them to participate.
Born into a “madhouse” of a dysfunctional family and “branded” from his birth by the blackness of his skin, Ming-Trent is able to find in Shakespeare an unexpected salvation. Through the bard’s words, he could see his own “inarticulable” feelings finally given form. By developing his ability to perform the works that “White people” so admired, Ming-Trent found he could prove his own intelligence. Perhaps most importantly, Shakespeare could even get him chicks!
Though Ming-Trent does eventually manage to carve an impressive career out of his acting chops, he is plagued along the way by serious mental health issues, pervasive micro and macro aggressions, and a persistent struggle to define himself for himself as opposed to on racism’s terms. At times, Ming-Trent also transforms into various members of his family, allowing him to deepen his engagement with these ideas by incorporating their perspectives. While his journey takes us through some pretty harrowing moments, Ming-Trent makes sure to end on an inspirational up-note by paying forward some of his favorite Shakespeare-inspired insights.
Ultimately, Ming-Trent’s hilarious and heartfelt piece was one that succeeded on its own terms as a theatrical work. In providing an example of what is possible when individuals of all backgrounds are encouraged to see themselves in Shakespeare’s stories, it also served as a perfect encapsulation of the ideas put forth during the day’s earlier discussions.
Hopefully, future iterations of the Folger’s Reading Room Festival will continue to explore these ideas and to showcase Shakespeare-inspired work by a diverse array of artists. For both “Six Othellos” and “How Shakespeare Saved My Life,” I hope these first presentations were only the beginning!
The Reading Room Festival ran from January 25-28, 2024 at Folger Theatre, 201 E Capitol St SE, Washington, DC 20003. For more information on the Folger Theatre Reading Room Festival and to purchase tickets, go online.