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May 22, 2013 / Kirsty Pitkin

AHRC Chat: British Black and Asian Shakespeare Project

AHRC Chat: British Black and Asian Shakespeare Project

Twitter Q&A with Professor Tony Howard and actor Nicholas Bailey from the British Black and Asian Shakespeare Project.
Chat hosted by Kirsty Pitkin on behalf of the Arts and Humanities Research Council on Monday 20th May 2013.

  1. Welcome

    We welcomed Professor Tony Howard and actor Nicholas Bailey from the British Black and Asian Shakespeare project to a live question and answer session about the project.
    Before the chat, participants were encouraged to watch a short film about the project themes:
  2. The chat was designed to provide an opportunity for participants to ask questions about the project and contribute their own memories and perspectives on the issue of black and asian casting within Shakespeare productions past and present.
  3. Introductions

    We welcomed chat participants from across the UK and abroad. Professor Tony Howard highlighted some of the key Shakespearean productions featuring black and asian performers in each participant’s local area, including some controversial productions:
  4. Swindon, where Oscar James and Mona Hammond played M’beth and wife of M’beth in “The Black Macbeth” in the early 70s #ahrcchat
  5. TH: The Black Macbeth was interesting as it saw Macbeth as an “exotic” play. It had a white director, called Peter Coe #ahrcchat
  6. TH: That kind of production has always been controversial, ever since Orson Wells and his famous “Voodoo Macbeth” #ahrcchat
  7. If any of you saw that production in Swindon or at The Roundhouse, please tell us about it! #ahrcchat
  8. @ian_lyne Hi Ian, where are you based? We’re testing Tony’s knowledge of productions in each town here 🙂 #ahrcchat
  9. @ahrcpress I’m from Gloucester (well, born in Stroud) – much Shakespeare there??
  10. .@ian_lyne Tony and Nicholas are scratching their heads over that one! #ahrcchat
  11. TH: @chrisisalright Great, that’s where Joseph Marcell’s King Lear is going soon #ahrcchat
  12. TH: Marcell is v. different – the casting is multicultural but it is about the play not race which is a sign of how far we’ve come #ahrcchat
  13. @ahrcpress excellent news! Big fan of Marcell! #ahrcchat ill keep an eye out
  14. @ganymeder Welcome! It is an international story. Robeson couldn’t play Othello in American in 1930 because of discrimination #ahrcchat.
  15. .@sitathomas90 Welcome! East London = Stratford East, which has opened up Shakespeare to really diverse audiences #ahrcchat
  16. .@sitathomas90 Especially thanks to the work of Philip Headley. Great man! #ahrcchat
  17. @ahrcpress Hi there, Jasjit here from Leeds Uni #ahrcchat. Out of interest are there many ‘Asian’ characters in Shakespeare’s plays?
  18. .@drjasjitsingh Interestingly not. There’s a running theme of fear of “the Turk” (“Are we turned Turk?” is a phrase Othello uses) #ahrcchat
  19. .@drjasjitsingh From 1968 Asian actors began to make their mark on Shakespear in the UK #ahrcchat
  20. Opening Remarks: Professor Tony Howard

    Professor Tony Howard from the University of Warwick is the principle investigator for the British Black and Asian Shakespeare project.
    Professor Howard’s research sets out to deliver a critical history of multicultural Shakespearean performance in 20th-century Britain. In doing so, the research traces how the theatre reflects political and social changes and attitudes in wider society.
  21. TH: The project began in 2009 when I was working on a project to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Paul Robeson playing Othello #ahrcchat
  22. TH: We put together an exhibition and events that toured the country tracing Paul Robeson’s steps #ahrcchat
  23. TH: It soon became clear that this was just the beginning of a story. What other black actors had played Shakespeare? #ahrcchat
  24. TH: It was clear that audiences still remembered his performances and had stories they wanted to share #ahrcchat
  25. TH: There was a great mass of memories, all opening up questions about the role of Shakespeare in a multicultural society #ahrcchat
  26. TH: Most of all, this told us that there was an unwritten history #ahrcchat
  27. TH: Many brilliant performers saw Shakespeare as something they must do. In some cases they were encouraged, and others obstructed #ahrcchat
  28. TH: Overall, these were marginalised experiences and forgotten events, so the project aims to uncover the raw information #ahrcchat
  29. TH: We also want to ask actors, directors and audiences to give us more information about those performances and their effects #ahrcchat
  30. TH: The project team is quite small. I’m an academic, Nick is an actor, we have a theatre administrator and a dancer involved #ahrcchat
  31. TH: The families of those involved have come from India, Sierra Leon, the Caribbean and Ireland #ahrcchat
  32. Opening Remarks: Nicholas Bailey

    Actor Nicholas Bailey, while best-known for his role as Dr Anthony Trueman in Eastenders, is also well known for acting on the Shakespearean stage.
  33. NB: I heard about the Robeson project through Junior Douglas who had a touring show called Black Heroes in the Hall of Fame #ahrcchat
  34. NB: He is a producer who knows a lot about the 20th century explosion of black engagement and creativity #ahrcchat
  35. NB: He got in touch to ask if I would read Robeson’s words in Tony’s piece as a performer #ahrcchat
  36. NB: I was hugely energised by the project and the stories that Tony’s piece acquainted me with #ahrcchat
  37. NB: I was asked to come back and do a second reading as part of the launch event for the exhibition #ahrcchat
  38. NB: At that point, I asked Tony if I could please, please be a part of this, as it is really important #ahrcchat
  39. NB: It is a point in history when we have the technology and the capability to unlock these important stories #ahrcchat
  40. NB: Since then, I have been involved as a facilitator and consultant on the project #ahrcchat
  41. NB: The passion was instant. Now we want people to come forward and share their stories to enrich the project #ahrcchat
  42. NB: Probably the most high profile Shakespearean production I’ve been in to date is Richard Eyre’s King Lear with King Lear #ahrcchat
  43. NB: Richard used 2 black actors to play France and Burgundy to denote another culture, another place and form of politics #ahrcchat
  44. Question and Answer

    We invited questions from participants about the project themes and asked about their experiences of watching performances involving black and asian actors.
    Some of the questions generated extended debate.  In this summary, we group tweets according to the different themes raised  to help separate out the different threads within the discussion.
  45. Theme: Early Black Shakespearean Actors

  46. @ahrcpress The film mentions Ira Aldridge – is he the first recorded Black Shakespearian actor of the modern age? #ahrcchat
  47. .@ian_lyne One of first black actors in the RSC was a South African call Alton Kumluo, speaks of the politicisation of Shakespeare #ahrcchat
  48. Theme: Reactions to Early Black Representations of Shakespeare

  49. @ahrcpress what was the reception like towards the first ever black representation of a major Shakespeare role? Positive? #ahrcchat
  50. .@ble1 Aldridge became v. popular in “the provinces” and in Europe, but in London a lot of the reviewers were racist & dismissive #ahrcchat
  51. .@ble1 That’s where you see dominant culture seeing its ownership of Shakespeare being challenged #ahrcchat
  52. .@ble1 It was similar with Paul Robeson’s Othello in 1930. Many said it was the best performance they’d seen others walked out #ahrcchat
  53. Theme: Asian Actors in Shakespeare

  54. @ahrcpress #ahrcchat Do you have the names of some of the earliest Asian actors from the 1960s and where they performed?
  55. .@drjasjitsingh TH: The key figure is Zia Mohyeddin, who played Shylock in Birmingham in the late 60s #ahrcchat
  56. .@drjasjitsingh He was actually cast as Romeo with the RSC in 1961, though he didn’t finally appear #ahrcchat
  57. @ahrcpress #ahrcchat V interesting – thanks. Wondered how you’re defining “Asian”? Are most Asian Shakes actors East/South/SE Asian?
  58. .@drjasjitsingh In the UK, there haven’t been many opportunities for E.Asian actors #ahrcchat
  59. .@drjasjitsingh That’s changing with companies like Yellow Earth and Ben Wong was a brilliant Laertes last year #ahrcchat
  60. .@drjasjitsingh Strong steps are being taken to extend the casting opportunities to asian actors #ahrcchat
  61. .@drjasjitsingh NB: You might want to see Yellow Face by David Henry Hwang at Finsbury Park #ahrcchat
  62. .@drjasjitsingh TH: Look him up on the web – he was a great propagandist for Shakespeare, even today #ahrcchat
  63. .@drjasjitsingh He’s hoping to produce more and debate the issues in broadcast media #ahrcchat
  64. .@drjasjitsingh NB: Yellow Face is about casting, race and stereotyping. Its a great play #ahrcchat
  65. @ahrcpress #ahrchat Thanks – Did you catch this Indian version of ‘Much Ado’ last year? I heard it was great: guardian.co.uk/stage/2012/aug…
  66. .@drjasjitsingh TH: Yes, wonderful show, with a brilliant director! #ahrcchat
  67. .@drjasjitsingh Although you’ll have seen that many of the actors hadn’t had a chance to play Shakespeare before #ahrcchat
  68. Theme: Shakespeare’s Awareness of Black Actors

  69. .@triciabrabham TH: Not as far as we know. Some black women were musicians around the court #ahrcchat
  70. .@triciabrabham This may be connected to the “dark lady” of the sonnets, according to some historians #ahrcchat
  71. .@triciabrabham NB: We can assume black performers have been here as long as there has been a black presence here #ahrcchat
  72. .@triciabrabham TH: Many historians would argue that Cleopatra is seen as an African role #ahrcchat
  73. .@triciabrabham TH: That’s a part that actresses from diverse backgrounds began to play from the 1990s #ahrcchat
  74. @ahrcpress how interesting. Any books/references about those musicians? #ahrcchat #musicology
  75. .@novemberbeetle The Oxford Companion to Black British History, co-edited by David Dabydeen #ahrcchat
  76. .@novemberbeetle All of David’s books shed a light on black presence in the UK #ahrcchat
  77. @katecmorrison @ahrcpress @TriciaBrabham there were many black characters in early modern drama besides Shakespeare’s Othello, Aaron Caliban
  78. @katecmorrison @ahrcpress @TriciaBrabham there may have been some black performers in pageants, e.g. in Edinburgh in 1590. #ahrcchat
  79. @ahrcpress @Novemberbeetle Here’s a blog I wrote on black musicians at #Tudor and #Stuart courts. No women though! mirandakaufmann.com/3/post/2012/11…
  80. @ahrcpress More info on the black presence in Britain 1500-1640 here: mirandakaufmann.com/history.html #ahrcchat
  81. Theme: Current Attitudes Towards British Black and Asian Actors

  82. @ahrcpress for nb: how have attitudes have changed throughout ur career, & do you think this project will help future bba actors? #ahrcchat
  83. .@chrisisalright NB: It seems as if there has been a slight regression in terms of attitudes within the performing arts #ahrcchat
  84. .@chrisisalright Today, casting seems to be colour-specific or related to the vision of the director #ahrcchat
  85. .@chrisisalright TH: That’s exactly where we were in the 1980s #ahrcchat
  86. .@chrisisalright NB: There are opportunities for black performers, but fewer in roles that aren’t specified as black #ahrcchat
  87. .@chrisisalright NB: An agent once told me that a role they put me up for hadn’t been “seen as black” by the casting director #ahrcchat
  88. .@chrisisalright NB: This project will undoubtedly help future bba performers because it illuminates a rich & diverse history #ahrcchat
  89. .@chrisisalright TH: Greatest danger in all aspects of society is a sense of isolation. Add to that a lack of a sense of history #ahrcchat
  90. .@chrisisalright TH: …And you have communities programmed to fail #ahrcchat
  91. .@chrisisalright NB: I think it will inspire a generation of performers but their careers need to helped by the industry #ahrcchat
  92. .@chrisisalright TH: Complacency on the part of managements – if you think you’ve solved a problem you think its solved forever #ahrcchat
  93. .@chrisisalright TH: We also live in less militant times – it is a period of insecurity rather than demands for change #ahrcchat
  94. .@chrisisalright NB: They simply don’t consider engaging with these gaps in representation #ahrcchat
  95. .@ahrcpress I hope it improves to a point where actors are cast on the merrit of their performance, not their race. Many thanks! #ahrcchat
  96. Theme: Black History Month 2013

  97. @ahrcpress will the project be tying-in in any way to Black History Month 2013? #ahrcchat
  98. .@spinspins0k TH: Yes, the exhibition will be at Lambeth Libraries, w/ linked events and I’ll be giving a talk at Call Mr Robeson #ahrcchat
  99. .@spinspins0k TH: Call Mr Robeson is a brilliant show by Tayo Aluko, which has spread the word about Robeson around the world #ahrcchat
  100. Them: Use of Shakespeare in the US Civil Rights Movement

  101. @ahrcpress Was Shakespeare used at all in the context of US civil rights? And were black actors involved?
  102. .@ian_lyne Yes, again, Robeson is central. He made Othello a symbol of Black achievement during the war #ahrcchat
  103. .@ian_lyne TH: In the 60s figures like James Earl Jones became important #ahrcchat
  104. #ahrcchat Great to have heard more about the project. Thanks!
  105. Theme: Casting Othello

  106. @ahrcchat is it now taboo to stage Othello WITHOUT a black actor in the title role in Britain (unlike elsewhere in Europe)? #ahrcchat
  107. .@benbrynmor NB: It certainly is! Othello is a black role and the politics of the play dictate that that’s appropriate #ahrcchat
  108. .@benbrynmor TH: In Europe that’s not the case. It is about how theatre reflects the community #ahrcchat
  109. .@benbrynmor TH: Of course, Hugh Quarshi complete disagrees with Nick on this… #ahrcchat
  110. .@benbrynmor TH: He says Othello is a stereotyped creation by a white writer & its demeaning for a black performer to act that out #ahrcchat
  111. .@benbrynmor NB: I would say that Shakespeare’s value is in telling universal stories about how we are at any point in history #ahrcchat
  112. .@benbrynmor NB: Prejudice exists in humanity. This is true of the 17th or the 21st centuries #ahrcchat
  113. .@benbrynmor NB: Othello is a play about prejudice and humanity and what unites and divides us as a community #ahrcchat
  114. .@benbrynmor NB: Its up to the performers, directors & communities to decide how the universal messages are shared #ahrcchat
  115. Theme: Future Research

  116. TH: On 2nd July at Warwick Uni there will be a symposium where we shall bring together academics, performers, administrators… #ahrcchat
  117. TH: …and directors to explore these issues and think about practical possibilities. #ahrcchat
  118. TH: The 2nd July symposium is about the past, present and future – questions and answers #ahrcchat
  119. TH: The symposium will outline areas for debate over the next 2 years #ahrcchat
  120. TH: There will also be academic and theatre-based voices from American to see what light their experiences can shed #ahrcchat
  121. TH: The target is to put out two books: one historical and one a set of essays that will carry on these arguments in public #ahrcchat
  122. TH: There will be another exhibition in 2015 as a celebration and we hope at the end of the grant the project will continue #ahrcchat
  123. Conclusion

    We would like to thank Tony, Nicholas and all those who participated in the live Twitter chat for your contributions.  Please do continue the discussions!
    We conclude with a final closing thought from Nicholas Bailey:
  124. NB: Closing thought – Representation is not the lack of racism. It is about reflecting society as it is #ahrcchat
  125. Find Out More

    To find out more about the British Black and Asian Shakespeare project, follow @BBAShakespeare on Twitter, or check the project website.
  126. Feedback

    We are really keen to hear your feedback about this Twitter chat.  Would you like further Twitter chats?  What topics interest you?
    Please leave a comment or tweet your thoughts to @AHRCPress.

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