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British Black and Asian Shakespeare Database

Highlighting the diversity within Shakespeare in performance

Shakespeare is an icon of Britishness and his works are an integral part of British tradition and cultural life. For more than a century, British Black and Asian artists have shaped the way that these plays are performed, yet their contribution to our Shakespearean tradition and heritage has often been neglected. Warwick’s British Black and Asian Shakespeare Database (BBAS) documents performances by BAME Shakespearean actors since 1930, to create a record of their work, track casting patterns and celebrate their contribution to British theatre.

The challenge

Modern theatre continues to lack diversity, with many Black and Asian actors left excluded from leading roles in productions of Shakespeare’s plays. The work of many theatre practitioners of colour – such as Paul Robeson and Ira Aldridge – has not been celebrated as it should. The British Black and Asian Shakespeare Database crucially highlights both the work and the legacy of actors of colour as well as highlighting the need for increased diversity in performance today.

Our approach

The AHRC-funded project brought together a diverse team of actors, theatre practitioners, academics and filmmakers, highlighting the history of Black and Asian theatre practitioners within the Shakespearian tradition. As well as historical research, the project team collected testimony from theatre practitioners, preserving their knowledge and experience of:

  • Stories of migration

  • Colour-blind casting and the exclusion of ethnic minority actors

  • Past and contemporary productions

  • Colour-conscious casting

  • Examinations of how gender and race intersect

Researchers also encouraged - and continue to encourage – contributions from the public. This allow practitioners of colour to tell their personal stories in their own words.

Our impact

The project team uncovered a broad history of the contribution of Black and Asian actors to the history of Shakespeare in performance, organising events and exhibitions showcasing and celebrating this history. This included events celebrating the role of Ira Aldridge at the Coventry Theatre as the first known theatre manager of colour in the UK.

Throughout the project, the researchers were asked: “Why has no-one done this before?” The project has been instrumental in changing the way we understand the contribution and experiences of black and Asian British actors, uncovering an often under-appreciated history and inspiring the next generation.

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