Ms. Winkler, why do we have to learn about Shakespeare?
Once they got the hang of hurling insults- “Thou art a craven, folly-fallen hedge-pig!” Or showering compliments- “Thou art a bespiced, gallant-springing kicksy-wicksy!” They started having fun.
For me, as an 8th grade teacher in a public urban/suburban school, with a diversepopulation, I often had to convince students why reading this dead white guy would beworthwhile. The unit culminated in a performances; students formed small acting companies, selected a scene, and created costumes and props.
Too bad I hadn’t heard of Carlyle Brown’s 1987 play, “The African Company Presents Richard III.”
Set in 1821, forty years before Lincoln ended slavery, and fifty years before black Americans earned the right to vote, the first black theatrical group in the country, the African Company of New York, was putting on plays in a downtown Manhattan theatre, attracting black and white audiences. The story unfolds when the company, about to open “Richard III,” is shut down by city police who, under pressure from a white producer, cite fire hazards. Finding a new space next door to the white producer’s theater, the company rehearses, only to be arrested for presumably inciting a riot.
Based on the history of the African Grove Theater, considered the nation’s first black theater company, the play shows how early black actors gained credibility by performing classical plays with known plots and characters.
Every year, I told my students that every actor they’ve seen on television or in movies had at some time studied and most likely acted in some Shakespeare. I interviewed two African American actors I met through a theater agent friend- hoping this could eventually be a book. Here are some excerpts:
Peter Francis James began his acting career in 1979 when he appeared in Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” with Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman.
What draws you to Shakespeare?
He understood human beings. He shows us how we relate to each other. There’s no other writer that consistently displays the entire range of human emotion.
Is there one experience that stands out?
I saw James Earl Jones play King Lear on at television program broadcast live from New York’s Central Park. I watched the entire three hours, glued. I realized that “we” could do this; James Earl Jones proved it to me.
What turned you on to Shakespeare?
I realized that Shakespeare in just 36 plays and his sonnets addresses every human emotion, everything in life. No other author has done that. He expresses what all human beings go through, what it means to be human with all our complexities. And how we’re unique unto ourselves.
Shakespeare created more than 12,000 words. Rap artists make up words. That’s what makes it so exciting.
We live in a McDonalds society where you watch TV and everything gets resolved in half an hour. Well life isn’t that way. Shakespeare was the original soap opera writer. He’s constantly reminding us who we are. You learn about yourself, how to relate to your family, your boss, your friends.
My interview with Carlyle Brown appeared in Education Update, in June 2009. Here are some excerpts:
Playwright Carlyle Brown got his training in drama as an Outward Bound instructor on Hurricane Island, Maine. “I had 12 people on a boat for 28 days and I watched and saw human nature. Writing is about watching people get what they want,” he said.
His plays feature aspects of African American history to “fill in the gaps” overlooked in textbooks and popular culture, and to emphasize that the existence of African Americans in history, is not peripheral to American society, but central to it. “There isn’t anything we have or anything we do that would exist without the presence of African Americans.”
Brown founded Mixed Blood in 2002, as “an act of rebellion” because he wanted to do things that “were not being done” in American theater, and he wanted to experiment as an artist, as well as provide African American actors a greater range of roles.
“The African Company Presents Richard III” runs through May 15th at the Theater Project, Union County College, Cranford, NJ.