Friday, February 19, 2010

To be Black in Shakespeare: Thoughts from an Acting Intern

Being a black man in a Shakespeare company is a difficult thing. More difficult then many give credit for. Shakespeare has only written two roles for black men: Aaron the Moor and Othello (Othello is often debate as being black. Moors are technically Arabs from Northern Africa, who look more like Egyptians the Africans). Both are a bit unstable, and have affinity for killing white people. This is problematic for many of black artist, because how often can you strangle your young wife and not get a little bored. The number of roles for a black man in Shakespeare is almost dismal. To further compact the problem, Shakespeare Company's seem to employ a resident black man. A strong powerful presences that is their go-to King, Ghost, God, Fairy, or monster when he is not playing Othello or Aaron. This force of nature is usually allot older then a 20 something. This makes it even more difficult to break into a classical company.

Performing Shakespeare as a black man works against many of the natural tendencies that black people have. Black People, especially African Americans, have a natural rhythm of movement. This Funk, Hip hop, Jazz, or Blues swagger is embedded into our physicality, and many times we are completely unaware of it. It takes complete awareness of one's body to lose this rhythm (me in my own awkwardness and affinity for Rock music has caused me to lose some of my own natural rhythm). Shakespeare wrote his plays in a time when European music was experiencing its Baroque Period. A music that is less about the rhythm and more about the top voices. Hamlets characters natural rhythm is radically difficult for Black people, and Black actors (even playing Othello whose was written for a white man) have to actively work to lose this tendency, a very difficult thing to do.

Also, no matter how much a black man or women works, every black person living in America has a dialect. Even Black people who have spent most of their lives surrounded in a white community, still have the slightest change in their pattern of speaking from their Caucasian peers. I would like to argue that it ties once again to the music we listen to, but even my rocker black friends still have way of speaking that is specifically black. The problem, within classical literature, no one speaks like the modern black man. In fact no one in the contemporary world speaks like the modern black man. So it becomes increasingly important that we change our vocal patterns to fit within Shakespeare's world.

I guess this is what pushes black artist away from Shakespeare. However, as I continue down this path of becoming an artist, I find that the very thing that are my weakness, are some of my strengths. Because of the uniqueness of black actors, the way they move and speak, these traits are often sought after. It doesn't make our traits any better or worse, just unique.

More so professionally then in college, I find myself embracing those cultural aspects that make me as an artist unique. I will never escape the fact that I am a black man, and no amount of costume, funny voice, or make up can convince people other wise. However instead of it becoming a thing to pigeon hole me, I allow it to inform my art. A older actor told me, the audience wants you, not the mask you carry. Theater performers are some of the bravest people I know, because they share their inner self to a room full of strangers. Black theater performers it even worse, because our scares are the deepest and our selves the most guarded. However if I can find the ability to show that side of me to the world, then I can finally call my self and artist.

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