George Washington University professor of English, Ayanna Thompson, was recently featured in a university department news article that highlights her interpretation of William Shakespeare’s plays in today’s race-relation atmosphere. The article began with the description of Thompson, “a self-described ‘performance race scholar’” and claimed that she astounds her audience with her take on Shakespeare and race-relations. She said that her two shocking opinions are that “modern Shakespeare is intertwined with race” and “nobody is certain if audiences even notice.” She continued, “My talk aims to challenge our scholarly understandings of audience responses to nontraditional casting.”
“Shakespeare is my secret weapon. Communities are hungry to have safe dialogues around race and Shakespeare is a nice on-ramp…For me, Shakespeare isn’t the destination; it’s the vehicle to engage us in these harder conversations.”
She spends 48 hours a week doing the following: “presenting public lectures, guest-teaching classes in disciplines like English and African American studies and meeting with students, faculty and administrators.” As a part of this on-campus discussion and teaching, she pushes her race-relations claim further: “[Race] is always there…always present, it always impacts the way Shakespeare is being employed.”
Thompson criticized theaters for playing “fast and loose” with audience expectations on casting decisions, “Do you want them to notice race or don’t you,” she was quoted as saying in the article. She did not agree with the idea that audiences are used to seeing diverse casts and race-relations is not an issue. Instead, she said the following:
“But the truth is that we have 150 years of actors of color performing Shakespeare and we have zero data about how audiences react to it. And, even within the theater world, nobody wants to ignite that tricky and difficult discussion around race.”
Interestingly enough, the article noted that black actors and actresses have performed Shakespearean plays since 1821.