I think continued representation on stage is vital to actors of color becoming routinely cast as Hamlet, as Feste, as Lear. It’s crazy to think that we still are in 2019 and I can rabbit hole all the way back to Richard Burton (who played Prince Hal) and not find a Hal that looks like me.
— Brandon Carter
When I was a kid, I saw myself everywhere. I saw faces that looked like mine smiling back at me from billboards as we blew past them on the highway, peeking out from the magazine racks at the ends of supermarket aisles, standing at the podium in my high school auditorium, waving to the camera from the lawn in front of the White House. When I was six, my parents started taking me to the Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival, where (when I wasn’t asleep in their laps) I could see myself onstage, both in the bodies of the actors and in the contents of their characters. I got (and get) to see myself everywhere, and as such I had (and have) an easy time imagining myself anywhere. I’ve never known it any other way.
In other words: I am a White girl in America. It has been easy for me, and media has helped.
By “media,” I mean the collectively regarded “main means of mass communication” (OED) disseminated through entertainment, news, art, and culture and consumed both automatically and purposefully by those who come into contact with entertainment, news, art, or culture — that is, everybody. We automatically consume media messages from the highway billboards and magazine covers we pass, and we purposefully consume media messages from the books we read, the shows we watch, and the music we listen to every day. From these messages, we cobble together narratives of ourselves, our worlds, and wherein there we fit.
In 2015, The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues published a special issue of their Journal of Social Issues titled “Media Representations of Race and Ethnicity: Implications for Identity, Intergroup Relations, and Public Policy.” The articles in the issue look at various ways our media messages hold the mirror up to nature — not necessarily as it is, but as we believe it may or should be. For example, “mass media offers an array of characterizations that associate different identity groups with different possibilities for how to be a person (i.e., how to act or behave) in society” (Leavitt et al 40). Indeed, media has the power to tell us who society expects us to be, and therefore influence both who we are and what we think of others.
Theatre is a powerful form of media. Like most forms of entertainment, we consume it purposefully (albeit occasionally unwillingly or sleepily, if we judge by unimpressed student matinee audiences or by the actions of six-year-old me). Unlike most forms of entertainment we also consume it communally — my definition of theatre is one where performer and audience are in the same room at the same time, together (and, if in a performance space that allows or mandates it, like the Blackfriars Playhouse, visible to one another). The physical fact of bodies in close proximity heightens the impact of theatre by increasing its immediacy: actor and audience share the same bubble. Theatre is an event that happens right here, and right now. As such, we have the great power to use it to tell us stories about who we think we are and the great responsibility to do so mindfully, honestly, respectfully, and to everyone. So far, we haven’t.
While our country grows increasingly diverse, our communities have become increasingly segregated. In the article, “Why the Media’s Role in Issues of Race and Ethnicity Should be in the Spotlight,” Dana Mastro outlines some facts about the disconnect between the dueling realities of diversity on the global and local scales. Although non-Whites now comprise more than half of the births in our country, opportunities for interactions with different racial groups remain illusive. Mastro elaborates:
- The average White American lives in a neighborhood and attends a school that is 75% White
- Blacks and Latinos (particularly Mexican Americans) reside in neighborhoods clustered around their own racial/ethnic group, with disproportionately high levels of minority representation
- 74% of Black students and 80% of Latino students attend predominantly non-White schools, often with fewer than 10% Whites
- Asian Americans experience the greatest degree of racial/ethnic diversity in their schools and neighborhoods, however, they are also disproportionately clustered in predominantly Asian and/or ethnic neighborhoods.
- Among American Indians, 22% live on reservations or other trust lands (U.S. Census Briefs, 2012) and 46% attend schools in rural or isolated areas, with roughly one third in schools comprised of over 50% American Indians
With few opportunities and less inclination for intergroup mingling, Mastro concludes “the bulk of our interactions with diverse groups are likely to come in the form of vicarious contact via media; in effect, substituting for the lack of direct experience” (3). Yet, the “interactions” provided by media are neither real nor realistic, and reflect a further disconnect between reality and a media-driven representation of reality.
To focus his point, Mastro uses the specific medium of television, which does not represent discrete racial groups equally, equitably, or proportionately. According to the U.S. Census:
- Whites comprise 69% of the U.S. population and between 73-80% of TV characters
- Latinx individuals comprise 16% of the U.S. population and between 2-6.5% of TV characters
- Blacks comprise 13% of the U.S. population and between 14-17% of TV characters
Total lack of representation is damaging beyond measure. Using invisibility theory to back their assertion, Leavitt et al claim that “when a group is underrepresented in the media, members of that group are deprived of messages or strategies for how to be a person” (40). Their article is specifically about the dearth of Native American bodies in modern media messaging, but we can apply it more widely to other racial groups and more specifically to the realm of the theatre, and it deserves to be quoted at length (all emphasis mine):
Notably, it is not merely the quality of media characterizations of groups that contribute to identity and shared understanding (e.g., public perceptions about the defining characteristics and behaviors of the group and about norms for how to treat the group), but the quantity of portrayals (e.g., the sheer number of portrayals) also communicates a message about the group’s vitality in society (Harwood & Roy, 2005). Accordingly, the limited representations associated with minority groups in the media, in terms of both quantity and quality, are likely to convey to group members that they do not belong and cannot be successful in a number of achievement-related fields (e.g., education, business) where minority groups are scarcely (if ever) seen in the media (40).
Would I be where I am today if I didn’t see myself represented everywhere I looked while I was growing up? A question to be asked, and one to which I don’t think I’d like the answer.
While we see something closer to parity in the representation of Black bodies on TV, the way those bodies are often represented reminds us that quantity — while important — is no substitute for quality. As Riva Tukachinksy summarizes in the journal’s concluding article, minority groups “were often underrepresented in the media, and when at all present, they were cast in a narrow set of typically negative roles as buffoons, criminals, or hypersexual nonprofessional individuals” (187). What is true for media generally holds true for Shakespearean theatre, specifically, where Black bodies are increasingly depicted while remaining increasingly marginalized.
The problem is not limited to the United States, but rather reaches as far as Shakespeare’s increasingly global influence. In 2015, Dr. Jami Rogers, Steve Ranford, and Hafiz Hanif published the “British Black and Asian Shakespeare Database” (BBAS), as part of the “Multicultural Shakespeare: 1930-2010” project spearheaded by Warwick University and the Arts & Humanities Research Council. The database documents casting practices in the United Kingdom, specifically “the growing contribution of black and Asian performers to the UK’s theatrical life from 1930 to 2015.” The revelations about casting practices in Shakespearean productions are simultaneously shocking and expected: minority actors are often relegated to playing minor characters. As years become decades and centuries of skewed casting practices, we see the emergence of what Dr. Rogers calls the “unofficial black canon” of parts within the larger canon comprising Shakespeare’s plays. In an article for the British newspaper The Stage, Dr. Rogers breaks down the idea of the “black canon”:
With the vast increase in participation in the arts we have seen since the early 1980s, the formation of an unofficial ‘black canon’ has occurred, which keeps the vast majority of black and Asian talent from playing Hamlet or Henry V. Instead, ethnic minority actors are more frequently cast in roles that uphold the stereotypes BAME [Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic] performers have been decrying in television casting practices:
- Servants (Maria, Twelfth Night; Nurse, Romeo and Juliet)
- Best friends of the lead white actor, ‘blackta’ (Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing, Horatio in Hamlet)
- ‘Exotic’ or ‘colonial’ types (Oberon and Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Caliban in The Tempest)
What sort of messaging does this “black canon” send to Black audience members about who they are, who they can be, and what’s possible for their futures? I do not know the answer to that question, but I know that it cannot be the same as the message of limitless potential that I received growing up, falling asleep to the endless images of myself I saw reflected back at me from every possible platform.
So, what’s to be done? The short answer is “more.” Theatre, as a highly visible and immediate form of media, can help. When audiences come to see Brandon Carter as Prince Hal in the American Shakespeare Center’s 2019 Winter Season: The Actors’ Renaissance production of Henry IV, Part 1, they will see a Black man embodying not a servant or a best friend or an “exotic” type but rather Shakespeare’s complicated, heroic, prodigal protagonist for possibly the first time on a North American stage. That means something, but only if it continues. By casting potentially the first African-American Hal on this continent, the ASC may have unwittingly started something that should have long since begun. If Shakespeare truly is for everyone, and I believe it is, then everyone needs to be able to see themselves in it. That will only happen with more, and better, representation. When we hold a mirror up to nature, we need to see ourselves reflected back as we are in nature — full, colorful, and containing multitudes.