Shakespeare goes black!

Reading time 5 min.

The African-American Shakespeare Company (AASC) operates on a simple premise with a big goal: bring classic works of theater to diverse audiences by folding diversity into the plays, thereby dismantling preconceptions about theater, actors and viewers alike.

“I wanted to make Shakespeare accessible and palatable to an audience of color, and include characters and icons that were similar to my own communities,” said actor and director Sherri Young, who founded the San Francisco-based troupe in the early 1990s. “I thought, ‘Why not make Shakespeare colorful, and bring our own histories into the plays so they add to the story?’”

It was in this spirit that the AASC created a hip-hop version of Shakespeare’s iconic tragedy Macbeth, a production that was heralded by audiences. The company also tackled classic Greek plays, including Oedipus (staged with African dance and music), as well as the works of George Bernard Shaw. “We set Pygmalion on the streets of Oakland, California, instead of London, England,” Young said. “Instead of having the female main character selling flowers, she was selling Street Sheets [homeless-themed newspapers] and the male protagonist was a professor from Stanford.”

In each production, Young and her team strive to respectfully reinvent their subject matter in ways that resonate with diverse audiences. “Any time you can translate the way a story is being told to a modern audience, in order to make it better for that audience, I think that’s great,” she said. “With Pygmalion and the Shakespeare plays, we update things to modern times. Instead of swords, people fight with guns and knives. We try to keep the integrity of the language without dumbing it down.”

Origins of the AASC

A San Francisco native, Young began studying acting as a child, eventually enrolling in the American Conservatory Theater for graduate school. When she received her master’s degree in fine arts in 1992, she was disappointed by the lack of opportunities for black actors. “There was a movement called ‘colorblind casting’ in the early 1990s where a lot of Shakespeare companies were trying to find more diversity on stage,” Young said. “People of color were being hired, but they were essentially being told, ‘just act white.’ They’d be cast as spear carriers and witches, and put in peripheral roles. That’s not what I wanted for myself.”

During a two-day acting showcase, staged in San Francisco that same year, Young performed scenes from Shakespeare’s Richard II and The Taming of the Shrew, featuring black actors in key roles. Though she created the showcase primarily to share her and her colleagues’ acting talents, the performance achieved an unexpected level of success. “People were asking when the next show was, and if we were going to be having classes,” she said. “We weren’t planning anything further, but it made me realize that people were looking to do something new and different. So I kept walking with the ball.”

Education and outreach

“When we first started, parents from the African-American community would tell me, ‘I’ve always wanted to take my children to see Shakespeare, but not without anyone who looked like them on stage. I’m so glad you’re doing this,’” Young said. The feedback was not all positive, though. “We definitely got some negative phone calls. ‘How dare you put on Shakespeare like this?’ Some people were obviously not happy with our production choices.”

But the AASC continued to grow and perform, creating the Shake It Up educational program, which is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts. “A lot of people’s first experience of Shakespeare can be painful,” Young said. “We wanted to get students beyond simply reading the plays, because Shakespeare should be watched and experienced. We try to use theater games to help students comprehend what the work means. We have them get up and re-enact, or reinterpret what was just read. ‘How would that scene be different from this other character’s point of view?’”

Othello reinvented

Young is currently directing Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello. The play tells the story of a dark-skinned Venetian general of Moorish descent; his wife, Desdemona; and his treacherous second-in-command, Iago. “Iago puts the pestilence in Othello’s ear that Desdemona, who is white, isn’t being faithful,” Young said. “Othello ends up killing her based on the gossip.”

How will the AASC reinvent this classic? “Everyone asks if we’ll make Othello white!” said Young, laughing. “What we’re thinking is to make Iago a black female, and have her and Othello be the only blacks in a white world. There’s a trend in American black communities where successful black men marry white women, leaving black women feeling ostracized and isolated. So we may portray a successful black female Iago who is not only bitter after being overlooked for a promotion, but she’s also a former lover of Othello, who married a white woman instead of her. So the motivation to get even is there.”

By integrating contemporary social undercurrents, Young hopes to make Othello touch the AASC’s diverse audience the way previous productions have. “The point of a classic is that it resonates with everyone,” she said. “People may not understand the political structures or other details of Shakespeare’s time, but when you put the play in terms of, ‘What are the characters fighting for?’ — honor, love, riches, revenge, achievement — that’s when new audiences of all sorts can go, ‘Now I know what they’re talking about.’”

Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in San Francisco.

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