Tony Howard of University of Warwick initiated this project to bridge the gap in understanding of what black and Asian artists have achieved in Shakespeare in the UK, but there is little doubt that the work has global appeal.
We’ve got Jamaican school children coming in April with their Shakespeare, which wouldn’t have happened unless this project had happened,” says Professor Howard. “We’ve been picked up in the Broadway press in the States too. What I wanted to do right from the start was to say impact is where we begin, as far as we can, and I do think that’s worked.”
That the casting of black or Asian actors in roles in Shakespeare can still be controversial today shows the importance of Howard and his team’s efforts in building a history of both actors and producers work relating to Shakespeare in British theatre. But it is the local rather than the global acclaim that has most pleased Professor Howard as the project progressed.
The most important thing has been that we have worked in collaboration with the theatrical profession very closely,” he says. “One thing that we did a few times was a drama documentary play, based on research. Younger actors have said, ‘I didn’t know that but I feel different about my own work now knowing that Paul Robeson or Ira Aldridge had those achievements’. That’s inspirational for me.”
The research for the project was not just informed by those it studied, but sought to include them in the process. An exhibition on the topic was toured in schools, theatres and libraries, with a short film eventually made, starring former-Eastenders actor Nicholas Bailey. Both told the story of black and Asian actors in Shakespeare, including American radical Paul Robeson and 19th century actor Ira Aldridge, who is the subject of Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet.
I was amazed to discover that Aldridge actually ran a theatre in Coventry and was invited by the community to do that when there was still slavery half way round the world,” says Professor Howard. “There’s a current big argument now about how many companies have a degree of diversity at the board room level or backstage or running the company, yet he was actually running the theatre back then.”
The funding for the project has now finished, but enthusiasm for further findings means that it still continues in the background, moving towards a complete ongoing database of black and Asian involvement in Shakespeare in the UK. There is already interest from the US in the creation of a version of the work, reflecting a growing unease with the relative position of black actors, as highlighted by protests surrounding the 2016 Academy Awards.
When you’re talking about the director’s concept of black actors in Shakespeare, it tends to be the exotic stereotype or driven by the idea of black Africa being a place of violence,” says Professor Howard. “That worries me a lot. Actors usually find they can’t rise up to the top. They’ll be the hero’s friend or they’ll be the violent person. If they’re women, they’ll be a nurse or a maid. What we’ve been most thrilled by are productions which don’t have any kind of cultural envelope imposed on Shakespeare. It’s about just giving people the opportunity to do it really well.”