Broader Way

Broader Way

“Talk with me. We got so much to talk about,” says the man on the stage. The comment is addressed to the white director of a fictional production of Shakespeare’s Othello. The man, auditioning for the part of Othello, is a tall, middle-aged Black actor. He wants this director—and the audience—to know there is much they don’t understand about the character, about the man himself, about race in America.

This invitation to conversation from both character and playwright-actor is at the center of American Moor, Keith Hamilton Cobb’s award-winning play, which was brought to audiences in New Haven and beyond last week as the first of five online events in the series Building a Brave New Theatre: Exploring Race & Shakespeare in 2020. The series is the brainchild of Rebecca Goodheart, Elm Shakespeare Company’s producing artistic director, who was inspired last spring by Southern Connecticut State University theater students’ “call to action… to address systemic concerns .”

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“As a sidebar to that, I started reading and educating myself about some of the issues with Shakespeare and race,” Goodheart says. “And what I realized is there was a lot I did not know, and I spend my life doing this!” She realized that Elm Shakespeare had an opportunity—an obligation, even—to turn around and educate others. “Our job is to serve our community,” she says. “Our community is hurting right now.”

So Goodheart started calling friends and acquaintances in the Shakespearean theater community. The result is a five-part series spread over seven weeks that addresses the question, “What must a Shakespeare theatre do to meet this moment in history and serve our community?” That may sound like a question for insiders like directors, actors and producers. But Goodheart’s hope is that Shakespeare audiences will tune in, too, and think through some of these issues for themselves. Doing so, she says, will help them appreciate future performances in a whole new way.

“What comes out of this is we get better art, our audiences maybe get to know each other better and have a better understanding of who their neighbors are,” Goodheart says. Paraphrasing the Shakespeare scholar Ayanna Thompson, Goodheart contends that choices about elements of race in the plays must be made “intentionally,” not simply through mechanisms like “colorblind” casting. She hopes the series will help local audiences see beyond so-called “traditional” stagings and understand better how Elm Shakespeare makes some of its production choices.

Last week’s American Moor audience viewed the play’s rarely seen 2018 production, performed in the Jacobean-style, candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. In a thoughtful live talkback following the video, Cobb fielded questions from an engaged audience for a full hour. “You can’t write a play that begs a discussion,” he said, without then having the discussion. “We need to do the show and then talk all day.”

The Building a Brave New Theatre conversation continues November 12 with a BIPOC Director Forum featuring Carl Cofield (director of the 2019 Afro-futurist Yale Repertory Theatre production of Twelfth Night), Madeline Sayet (of Long Wharf Theatre and the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program), L. Peter Callender, Antonio Ocampo Guzman and Dawn Monique Williams. On November 19, Harlem Shakespeare Festival’s artistic director, Debra Ann Byrd, will give a live online performance of Becoming Othello: A Black Girl’s Journey, described as “her living memoir about a young woman’s trials and triumphs with race and the classics, and her gender flipped journey on the road to becoming Shakespeare’s noble, flawed general.”

Scholar Thompson, currently president of the Shakespeare Association of America, will conduct the discussion “Whose Shakespeare?” on December 4. The series will wrap up December 10 with Amplified!, featuring performances by professional BIPOC actors—including “a lot of familiar faces” from Elm Shakespeare, Goodheart says—followed by “a discussion on the joys and challenges of bringing these roles to life, actor training and what a new generation of BIPOC actors in love with Shakespeare should know.” Registration is required for all sessions, and admission is free thanks to the sponsorship of the Elizabethan Club at Yale and Webster Bank.

The Bard’s plays have lasted for 400 years; they obviously have something to offer, both Cobb and Goodheart say. But it may not be what they’ve offered in even the recent past. “When you say, ‘Shakespeare,’ it is the epitome of high art. It is synonymous with culture, it is synonymous with the mainstream, it is synonymous with ‘educated’ and ‘learned,’” Goodheart says, adding that this is a 19th-century construct. “I have never been that interested in ‘high art.’ It’s one of the reasons we do it in the park. We want it to be for everybody.”

Building a Brave New Theatre: Exploring Race & Shakespeare in 2020
presented by Elm Shakespeare Company

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image, featuring Keith Cobb during a performance of American Moor, provided courtesy of Elm City Shakespeare.

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