The first Michael Jackson song I ever remember listening to was “Black or White.” Four year old me loved it, 24 year old me still does. The song lyrics say “It doesn’t matter…” A powerful message. But for some strange reason when it comes to casting plays, we don’t always have that benefit. Let’s take an example from the most famous body of drama and literature, the works of William Shakespeare.
In terms of black Shakespearean characters we have Othello, Aaron (from Titus Andronicus) and the Prince of Morocco (the Merchant of Venice). Aside from the odd non-white character, most of the people in Shakespeare’s plays are Caucasian.
But what about their staging today?
That question leads to many others such as: Are those roles still limited to black or non-white actors? What happens when a white person plays one of those roles? What about having a black actor in a “white” role? How would audiences react to a Black or Tamil or Native or Chinese or non-white Hamlet? How is the accessibility of non-white characters to white actors compare to the accessibility of white characters to non-white actors? These are all questions that bounce around in my head and I’m not the only one who thinks this way. Here is an article from The Guardian discussing the grey area of casting with regards to Shakespeare.
Of equal importance in this discussion is the perspective a story is being told from. Though the number of non-white writers is ever on the rise, many of the shows that we see being produced are written by Caucasian authors. Which is why Companies like fu-Gen, Native Earth, Obsidian, The MT Space, and Alameda Theatre Company are so important. They are all driven by a need to make sure the voice of their respective groups is heard by the larger Toronto and Canadian Community.
In the case of “Shakespeare’s Nigga,” (written by Joseph Jomo Pierre) the world of the play is seen from Aaron’s perspective. So the significance is twofold. It is a play written about a black character by a black artist. And to tie it all together, (for those of you thinking “Andrew, I follow you. But where are you going?”) The play also takes an imagined look at two of the three black characters from Shakespeare’s canon and examines their relationship with him. It should prove to be an interesting interpretation and response to Shakespeare, while simultaneously being a fresh approach to dealing with some of the less prevalent themes found in his work.
Though the issues with casting plays still largely exists, it’s inspiring to see a groundswell of work being created for non-white artists by non-white artists.