Apr 4, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Much ado about something: Shakespeare gets more diverse

An illustration of the Public Theater version of an audio play and bilingual version of Shakespeare’s “Romeo y Julieta.”

The Public Theater's audio play and bilingual version of Shakespeare’s “Romeo y Julieta.” PHOTO: Erick Davila-Courtesy The Public Theater

Shakespeare productions, from The Globe in London to community farmworker theaters in rural America, are embracing diverse casting to retell the Bard's dramas and comedies while confronting issues around race.

Why it matters: Shakespeare's plays, with their contradictory messages on race and ethnicity, have sometimes featured Black and Latino roles. But now, classical theater companies are experimenting with more diversity amid a reckoning following the death of George Floyd.

Driving the news: The Public Theater and WNYC Studios recently debuted a bilingual audio adaptation of "Romeo and Juliet" — "Romeo y Julieta" — starring Mexican-born Lupita Nyong’o and Colombian-born Juan Castano.

  • The Spanish/English production is a collaboration between Kenyan immigrant director Saheem Ali and Puerto Rican playwright Ricardo Pérez González.
  • Latino students at the University of California, Merced also have created a bilingual production of "Richard II," or "Ricardo II," that is streaming online and shows actors switching between languages during lines.

Last year, a production of Richard II, starring André Holland and Miriam A. Hyman, was scheduled to open at the Shakespeare in the Park festival in New York's Central Park.

  • But the pandemic forced The Public Theater and public radio station WNYC to make it a four-part play for radio just as racial justice protests erupted.
  • "In support of the fight against racism and inequality and in recognition of the unspeakable violence against Black communities, The Public Theater and the artists of Richard II dedicate this production to the Black Lives Matter Movement," the theater said in a statement.

The intrigue: The Alabama-born Holland, whose parents were involved in the civil rights movement, also played Othello during a 2018 production at The Globe.

  • It was one of many recent Globe productions to feature Black or South Asian actors in prominent roles.

What they're saying: "Classical theater companies are thinking about the ways their theater companies may have been complicit with a kind of white supremacist stance, even though their rhetoric has always been that Shakespeare is for everyone," Arizona State English professor Ayanna Thompson told Axios.

  • Thompson, the first Black president of the Shakespeare Association of America, said Shakespeare has long influenced Black writers like James Baldwin.
  • She said formerly enslaved people and free African Americans also performed Shakespeare in the early 1800s.
  • Now, diverse casting is more widespread and coming during a global racial awakening, she said.

Don't forget: Nelson Mandela kept a smuggled copy of "The Complete Works of Shakespeare" while a political prisoner at South Africa's Robben Island.

  • He wrote his name above a passage in "Julius Caesar." The passage: "Cowards die many times before their deaths;/ The valiant never taste of death but once."

What’s next: Chicago-based Mexican American playwright Alvaro Saar Rios is reviving his production of "Rogelio y Juliana," a reinterpretation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet where Juliet is Latina.

  • But unlike the original play, Juliana decides not to kill herself and declares that "no man is worth dying for."

One fun thing: Scholars say there is more evidence that audiences during Shakespeare's time were more diverse than originally thought, and the playwright would have been exposed to travelers from around the world, including Africa and the Americas.

  • This opens up more nuanced examinations about race in his plays, Thompson said.
  • Often overlooked is Aaron the Moor in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, who refuses to kill his biracial baby and gives what is believed to be one of the first Black Power speeches in literature, Thompson said.
  • "Coal-black is better than another hue,/ In that it scorns to bear another hue;/ For all the water in the ocean/ Can never turn the swan's black legs to white,/ Although she lave them hourly in the flood," Aaron exclaims.
Go deeper