We envisioned the Around the Globe section bringing you tales of the wonder of Shakespeare’s impact everywhere, whether through the work of theatre companies or connections to science (link to December’s), but this month, we are thinking about those who lack access and find that our eyes are drawn closer to home. As a country–and right now, in Virginia, my adopted state–we have a long way to go to heal from the effects of our relationship to slavery. Our founders chose to maintain an institution that dehumanized millions of people, and that choice continues to impact our relationships today.

Coincidentally, in the education department this week, we started a journey. Because we have been asked to facilitate a workshop on diversity this summer through our leadership program, we formally met as a team to converse about what the words “diversity, equity, and inclusion” mean to us. On stage at the Blackfriars right now, we have a beautiful telling of Henry IV, Part 1 with what we believe to be the first African-American Hal and Hotspur ever playing the lead roles, and they have already said that they would be a part of our new program–we are both immensely grateful and joyful that we will be joined by these knowledgeable and talented folks.
You see, our Staunton leadership team is made up of two white men and three white women*, and we have a lot of learning to do. We dove in with a film, Cracking the Codes, which, helpfully, came with a conversation guide. The film is intense: it brought tears, recognition, discussion. Because it was so compelling, Liz (our Education Group Sales Associate–and the only person of color in our department) and Lia (College Prep Programs Manager) joined in. We all sat around the glow of the screen and, as a group, began the journey of self-realization and acknowledgement of the systematic and structural racism that governs our culture.

As we watched and discussed the stories we were hearing and seeing, we began to see the connections with Shakespeare. Many folks’ minds would immediately leap to Othello as the Shakespeare play that is about race, but I think first of the play The Merchant of Venice. Like Donna Denizé, in her article in Shakespeare Set Free: Teaching Twelfth Night and Othello, I see this play as forecasting our current struggles with race. The hypocrisy of so many characters in that play–and the very troubling contradictions they present–is incredibly unsettling. Yet, 400 years ago, Shakespeare wrote the following words for Morocco, a black character, to deliver:

Mislike me not for my complexion…
Bring me the fairest creature northward born…
And let us make incision for your love,
To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine.
I tell thee, lady, this aspect of mine
Hath fear’d the valiant: by my love I swear
The best-regarded virgins of our clime
Have loved it too: I would not change this hue,
Except to steal your thoughts, my gentle queen.

He seems to know that the human race is the only race–something the film emphasizes too–we are all the same down to the last 1/100th of our genes. This brave, compelling character faces a woman who, moments earlier, bemoaned the advances of any person of color saying, “if he have the condition of a saint and the complexion of a devil, I had rather he should shrive me than wive me.” Likely written 8 years before Othello, The Merchant of Venice deeply wrestles with bias in the same ways we continue to today–one could easily insert swastikas and hoods into a production based solely on the views expressed by too many of the characters.

Othello, on the other hand, presents racism in another key. As Denizé brilliantly points out in the article (written in 1995, or nearly 20 years ago) mentioned above, the story of Othello is one of nationalism. Featuring Cassio the Florentine, Othello the Turk, and war in Venice, Iago finds a situation ripe for sowing distrust. And he uses the same tools we see deployed too often today. The Venetians must protect their state at all costs. Nationalism is the way Iago foments hatred–in his Iago-ish ways, without saying anything directly (except to Roderigo and Brabantio) but pushing and pulling the bigotry out of the characters–even the self-loathing that leads the title character to the dreadful ending events.

In a confluence of conversation, Aubrey found herself at a re-scheduled event in DC this past week, American Moor. There, she heard the moving words of Keith Hamilton Cobb as he works through the meaning of Othello to a black actor. She enthusiastically brought the experience back to us and helped us all to see what a box theatres put themselves in when the only roles people of color are offered are the ones above. I see and hear from my adult friends and from students at our matinees what a difference seeing themselves on the stage in a variety of roles makes to their self-confidence, their self-realization, their possibilities. That is why I am so excited by the array of talent Blackfriars is at pains to hire, and why I joy in the possibility for introducing more opportunities for conversations about the importance of seeing and hearing the words of Shakespeare from as many types of people as we possibly can. Shakespeare’s stage, as we think of it here at the ASC, is liberating. He doesn’t tell us that Orlando is white, nor that the Princess in Love’s Labour’s Lost isn’t. His facility with language and description is enriched when a variety of people share the stage, and conversations begin and continue, opening up the chance for new ways of thinking. If there is one thing I have learned from our journey’s first steps, it is that new ways of thinking and conversation are the way we will come to terms with the history we inherited. And Shakespeare seems to have both written some pretty good conversations and some good conversation starters. I, for one, look forward to finding more ways to talk about–and do what we can to speak up for– justice and equity as we continue down this path.

*Our full leadership team features more diversity, but many are based in New York.