Good morning and welcome to the tenth biennial Blackfriars Conference! My name is Alexandra LaGrand and I am excited to be reporting on our welcome statements and our first keynote speaker.
We begin with welcome statements from Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen, co-founder of the American Shakespeare Center, noting that this is our nineteenth year here at the Blackfriars Playhouse. Dr. Cohen introduced the ASC’s new artistic director, Ethan McSweeny, who spoke excitedly about how this would be the “last of [his] firsts” of anything here at the Blackfriars, finally being able to experience the joy that is this conference after his first year as the artistic director.
Following McSweeny, ASC Board of Trustees Chairwoman Candice Hark took the stage, explaining her role as chairwoman being similar to being that of “chief cheerleader” of the ASC, explaining that her love for Shakespeare extends back to her time in college when she took a class on Shakespeare and his contemporaries. She notes that the playhouse offers a Shakespeare that is more accessible and richer than Shakespeare found elsewhere.
Dr. Cohen then had the pleasure of introducing the ASC managing director, Amy Wratchford, who he notes “keeps this place running.” Wratchford then introduced Staunton mayor, Carolyn Dull, who welcomed us kindly to the city of Staunton and mentioned other various attractions to check out while in town, such as the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum and the Frontier Culture Museum. Mayor Dull also suggested eating at the amazing downtown restaurants.
Dr. Cohen introduced Mary Baldwin University President, Pamela Fox, in honor of the partnership between the ASC and the Shakespeare and Performance graduate program at MBU. President Fox discussed the “remarkable” evolution of Mary Baldwin College into Mary Baldwin University just as the ASC has grown, as well as a record-breaking first-year class at the university.
Following President Fox, Paul Menzer took the stage to welcome everyone on behalf of the Shakespeare and Performance graduate program. Dr. Menzer currently serves as the director of the program as well as the Dean of the College of Fine Arts at MBU. He noted that the program has had seventeen classes of graduates, and that over twenty-five students and graduates of the program are presenting at this conference.
Dr. Cohen introduced Sarah Enloe, ASC Director of Education. She discussed several opportunities to experience the virtual reality station, a workshop on how to draw Shakespeare, and even our Steadfast Shakespeare Company’s production of Q1 Hamlet. All of these opportunities are in the conference program booklet. Enloe welcomed Anne Morgan, ASC Literary Manager, to the stage, who discussed the ASC’s new playwriting competition called Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries, designed to produce plays from modern playwrights that work in conversation with Shakespeare’s plays.
ASC Tour Operations Manager Darlene Schneck introduced new Associate Artistic Director Dan Hasse, who spoke about his gratitude to the ASC for contributing to his childhood and growth. He mentioned starting in the ASC’s summer theatre camp, and is now taking over the responsibility of the ASC’s touring company following Schneck’s retirement at the end of this year.
University of the South at Sewanee’s Pamela Macfie took the stage to discuss her current experience as a partner in the ASC’s leadership consortium. She noted several wonderful benefits and was very enthusiastic about explaining the magical impact of this partnership on her students.
Finally, Enloe introduced our fearless Bear, in charge of monitoring time, and provided the reminder to not bring bananas into the playhouse.
We transitioned quickly into our first keynote speaker, David Sterling Brown from Binghamtom University, SUNY. The title of his talk is “Power, Privilege, and Shakespeare’s ‘Other Race Plays.'”
Brown began by providing his Twitter handle (@_theBrownprint_) as well as a hashtag to use (#ShaxORP) for his discussion.
While there are several plays that are originally seen as “race plays” set up to discuss race, Brown noted that it deludes us to only address race with these particular plays. Brown asserted that we should not focus on the plays that are traditionally associated with race, but rather extend this analysis to other race plays as well. He called these plays the “other race plays” or the ORP.
In discussing the “white hand” motif seen in the ORP, he noted the inherent associated traits of this motif, including beauty, validation, assurance, innocence, patriarchy, honor, sexual purity, virtue, and white (prop)erty. Brown noted that not only the presence of the white hand motif is significant, but also the placement and moment in which the white hand comes into contact with something. This symbolism carries an innate privilege.
Blackness, as Brown argued, is only tangentially important when seen in contrast with whiteness. This is seen in Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra, particularly in Cleopatra’s “white hand” on Cleopatra’s (traditionally understood and textually referenced) black body. Brown also noted several contrasts within the same play, seen in Antony blushing, including an example that provided an antithesis between the white and brown hairs. The white hairs, embodying wisdom, chastised the brown hairs for Antony’s fear and rashness.
At this point, Brown argued, “The power of whiteness is heard most loudly through silence.” This is seen in Antony and Cleopatra, where the black body serves as a sort of “sunken place,” in which the white hand motif has the power and control to reach out to it. Through Antony’s whitening of Cleopatra’s hand, the “white hand” scene is a dramatic attempt to put Cleopatra back in the “sunken place.” This behavior is oppressive and institutes silent racism. Antony repeatedly refers to Cleopatra in terms of ownership, including phrases such as “I found you,” which denotes his belief that he discovered Cleopatra, subtly instituting the belief that he is greater than the Egyptian queen.
Brown went on to note that Antony derived pleasure from the idea of Caesar taking advantage of Cleopatra’s black body for profit. Caesar’s seizure of Cleopatra would be seen as the typical and anticipated white dominance, but Cleopatra’s prediction that Caesar would parade her around Rome, Brown argued, works in her favor, because she anticipates this white dominance and goes on to take her life. Brown noted that she employs her white hand, which derives its power from her black body, thereby refusing to adhere to the white supremacy of Caesar and the Romans.
The white hand, Brown noted, had a penchant for violence, which is seen in the final act of the play, as well as alluding to Cleopatra’s white hand being capable of taking her life. The white hand is almost often associated with goodness and purity, while in Antony and Cleopatra, white hands are responsible for violence.
Brown finishes his keynote with the argument that these antitheses of white hands and other racial motifs are seen throughout other plays and warrant just as much exploration and attention.