Shakespeare and Race.
For the first time, Shakespeare’s Globe is holding a festival on Shakespeare and Race. Farah Karim-Cooper, Head of Higher Education & Research at Shakespeare’s Globe looks at why the time is right.
Shakespeare’s Globe is hosting its first international festival on Shakespeare and Race. Several questions spring to mind when putting together a festival of this nature at Shakespeare’s Globe:
How does Shakespeare’s work engage with race, racism and people of colour? What was the early modern experience of race? How do modern productions of plays that are preoccupied with race tackle the topic? How do theatre artists engage or not engage with it? Do actors, directors, designers, composers and musicians of colour have access to the same opportunities to pursue a career in theatre and to maintain their careers? How does unconscious bias enable white actors to have the advantage when it comes to costume design, lighting and set design? In other words, do creatives responsible for these arts always think consciously about taking into account skin colour when designing a show? What does it mean to be a person of colour and study, teach, perform, produce and read Shakespeare?
These and many more questions will arise during and beyond the festival – though there is no guarantee of finding answers. Indeed, more questions may be provoked.
Why should Shakespeare’s Globe be concerned with the topic of race now? As an international centre with iconic theatre spaces and a global presence, we aim to explore the ways in which Shakespeare’s plays, his theatres and his moment can be put into dialogue with the present and with issues that we face now in the 21st century, including and especially issues that relate to social justice.
The peer-reviewed journal Shakespeare Quarterly addressed the topic in a special issue. The editors, Kim F Hall (our Sam Wanamaker Fellow, 2018) and Peter Erickson, set some clear objectives for scholars to consider in the advancement of race studies: one of which states the need for “more studies of race and performance that themselves theorise/critique race rather than simply document the activities of people of color in the service of proving Shakespeare’s universality”.
In part, this festival, and, in particular, the symposium that will conclude it, is a direct response to this article’s call for action. In this festival, we want to ask questions about race, but not in a tokenistic way, and not in a way that suggests we are ticking a box or somehow trying to be ‘trendy’.
The aims of the festival are to invite scholars and artists of colour to speak on this topic openly and provocatively; to test our assumptions about theatre practice and racially diverse casting; to examine what it means to be a scholar or an artist of colour in 2018; to interrogate ourselves and the way in which we privilege white history, white authors and the landmark buildings, monuments
and canons that perpetuate such privilege. How can we turn Shakespeare’s Globe upon itself and ask its occupants and supporters to consider Shakespeare not as a model of universality, but as a site of reflection and empowerment? As a collection of works to jump into and scratch around in rather than merely adore, revere and worship?
The topic of race in Shakespeare is a growing field in America that young, emerging scholars of colour are making important contributions to. In the UK, there is less work being carried out in race studies at undergraduate and postgraduate level. One reason for our conference and its deliberate focus on the US and the UK is to find a way to develop the topic on both sides of the Atlantic.
Being able to listen to scholars who have been working in this field for decades and to hear from activists and thinkers like Kimberlé Crenshaw (American civil rights advocate and a leading scholar of critical race theory) and Luke Harris (director of programs and chairman of the board of directors of the African American Policy Forum raises the stakes of this festival.
Shakespeare’s Globe is at a point in its two-decade long history where it is reflecting upon itself as a cultural organisation; this festival is in part a response to the need for the Globe’s own evolving identity to emerge more fully as one that questions, interrogates and celebrates the potentially transformative impact that Shakespeare has on those who study, perform, read and enjoy his plays with their extraordinary, contradictory, troublesome and, most often, challenging themes.