Professor examines Bard’s work through colorblind lens

May 9, 2008

Should you notice, or shouldn’t you?

In a “colorblind” society, a black actor cast as Macbeth should not turn heads. The audience has come to enjoy a theater classic that is touted, like the rest of Shakespeare’s works, as a “universal play with timeless themes.” Download Full Image

Whether the actor is black, white, Asian or Native American should not make any difference.

But it’s not as simple as that, says Ayanna Thompson, an assistant professor of English and women and gender studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

In “Colorblind Shakespeare: New Perspectives on Race and Performance,” which she edited in 2006, Thompson says that “the universality and timelessness of the Bard’s works are often tested when actors of color are involved.”

Beginning in 1821, when the African Theatre in New York, a company comprised of and for ex-slaves and the sons of ex-slaves, put on a production of “Richard III” white critics ridiculed the black actors, Thompson said, writing that Shakespeare’s language was deemed “too difficult for these uneducated ex-slaves.”

A white audience member complained that it was too much for frail flesh and blood to see an absolute Negro strut in with so much dignity, bellowing forth.

Fast-forward to the 1960s. Critics of a multiracial casting of “Antony and Cleopatra” said: “Negro actors often lack even the rudiments of standard American speech” and “they do not look right in parts that historically demand white performers.”

Over that time span of 150 years, not much changed, Thompson says, and even today, “audiences don’t come to productions color-blind. We may desire to be a colorblind society, but we’re not there.”

She cites an example of Clarence Smith, a black actor who was cast as the King of France in the Royal Shakespeare’s colorblind production of “King Lear” in 1991.

A Frenchwoman in the all-white audience heckled the actor as he spoke his first lines, and continued yelling comments throughout the production. The woman explained that she thought it was “a disgrace that a black man was playing the King of France,” the actor later explained.

And when Denzel Washington played Brutus in a fairly recent Broadway production of “Julius Caesar” there was an audible gasp when he kissed the white actress who played his wife, Thompson said during an interview on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation.”

The Bard himself contributes to some awkward moments in supposedly colorblind productions of his works.

Shakespeare’s plays are “riddled with racist comments, both Jewish and black, that put the actor of color in an awkward position,” Thompson says. “Directors must decide, if they cast a black actor, for example, whether to take the offending line out.”

Reviewers also have difficulty sometimes with colorblind productions, Thompson noted in an article she wrote for Borrowers & Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation.

Thompson says, “Josette Simon, who made a name for herself playing classical theatrical roles in the 1980s and early 1990s, is quoted as saying, “I find critics calling me black Josette Simon, as if there were a white Josette Simon knocking about somewhere. They wouldn’t dream of talking about white Anthony Sher.’”

Will there be a time when colorblind casting  or what Thompson describes as the  “meritocratic model” in which “talent trumps all other aspects of an actor’s personhood” is the norm?

Lisa M. Anderson, an associate professor of women and gender studies and theater at ASU, wrote a chapter in “Colorblind Shakespeare” titled “When Race Matters: Reading Race in Richard III and Macbeth.”

She said that while the pursuit of an antiracist society and the eradication of the concept of white supremacy is vitally important, a world where skin color did not mean anything would not have a history in which race was a central category.

Race is not only about skin color, but it is a cultural construct, she said. As such, while racial dividing lines have been used to discriminate; they have also served to create an identity for those who are racialized.

Anderson said, “race mattered” in her high school drama club, “but not so much. The faculty advisors had no problem casting me in a role that did not specify someone of a particular race.” The high school musical theater club, however, “insulted” her by casting her as Bloody Mary in “South Pacific.”

And when she sought a role in her college’s summer theater, she was told there were no parts for black actresses that summer. “Enraged, I dropped my theatre major in favor of political science and vowed to become a playwright and write good roles for black women,” she said.

Today, “we remain acutely aware of race, and the privileges that a ‘lack’ of race (i.e.) whiteness bestows. We are unable to pretend that a black person, on stage or in a film, is not a black person.”

Thompson, herself an actress, said, “Although I did not know it at the time, I benefited from colorblind casting practices in high school and college. I played everything from an Angel in ‘Anything Goes’ to Marty Maraschino in ‘Grease.’ Thinking back to my teenage years, I know it would have been a bitter pill to swallow if I had been told that I could not play a ‘white character.’ I did not see race in acting roles; I only saw the roles themselves.

“In addition, I was and still am deeply committed to the idea that black actors and actresses should have as many opportunities as their white counterparts. Why should talented thespians like Denzel Washington, Halle Berry and Samuel L. Jackson have to wait around for specifically designated ‘black roles’?”

And Thompson says she, herself, does not want to be viewed in a “colorblind” manner.

“I wonder if being ‘blind’ to race and ethnicity is even desirable. Being black is so much a part of my identity that I am offended when people say they do not notice race, color or ethnicity. My race informs the way I experience the world in so many complex ways that I do not want it whited out or ‘e-raced’ by others.” 

NEH award recipient to research history of crime and punishment

May 9, 2008

For ASU associate professor Stephen Toth, his recent recognition as a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Award recipient amounts to being paid to play. After all, the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences modern European historian will receive a summer stipend to do what he enjoys most – researching and writing about the history of crime, punishment and violence in France.

“This is a real honor,” says Toth, whose work has appeared in such peer-reviewed journals as History of the Human Sciences, Journal of European Studies, Nineteenth-Century Contexts, and Crime, Histoire & Sociétés. “The funds provided through this endowment afford me the opportunity to get a two-month head start on my year-long sabbatical this summer, so it is very much appreciated.” Download Full Image

Toth is one of 149 applicants selected nationally in 2008 to receive $11.9 million in awards and offers extended by the NEH. He will use his endowment to fund archival research and writing in Paris and Tours, France, for his forthcoming book, “Rural Redemption: The Mettray Agricultural Colony for Boys, 1840-1939.” The study will examine life inside the controversial, privately operated Catholic institution for juvenile delinquents and the process by which it acquired a national and international reputation as a supposed exemplar of moral education, despite its harshly punitive tactics.

“This is a real testimony to the high quality of Stephen’s research,” says Elizabeth Langland, ASU vice president and dean of the New College.

“This is the type of work that typifies the best interdisciplinary research of the New College.

“His study of Mettray connects 150-year-old practices and beliefs that juvenile criminals can be rehabilitated through the power of the land to our own beliefs today and our practice of using rural, military-type facilities as a mode of juvenile rehabilitation.”

Toth says his upcoming exploration of Mettray has modern applications.

“Many states, including Arizona, and an untold number of for-profit and nonprofit groups opened – and continue to operate – rural, military-style camps to house and rehabilitate juvenile criminals. While proponents believe that such facilities are an innovative way to deal with a social malady seemingly unprecedented in scope, the idea and practice are actually rooted in a 150-year history that can be traced to Mettray.”

The Mettray study, says Toth, contributes to the humanities by helping to understand and contextualize contemporary debates surrounding juvenile crime and punishment in the United States. In recent years, social scientists, politicians and the mass media have focused on what they believe to be the growing problem of juvenile crime in America. Spurred in part by extreme forecasts that projected significant increases in juvenile crime rates, warnings of an impending “teenage crime storm,” particularly among young black and Hispanic males, predominated during the 1990s.

“The issues surrounding juvenile crime that were critical in 19th-century France bear a remarkable resemblance to many of those in the United States in the 21st century,” says Toth.

“In both eras – one beset by the material hardships associated with industrialization, the other by segments of the population mired in a seemingly insurmountable cycle of unemployment and poverty – there is a somewhat misplaced fear of a rising tide of juvenile crime. In this regard the agricultural colony has re-emerged as a means of addressing this perceived problem. Given that many of these institutions have, not unlike Mettray, also been accused of prisoner abuse and mismanagement, we need to understand the historical legacy of this correctional practice.

“In this regard, my work appeals to scholars of history, cultural studies, crime and criminology, as well as to policymakers who might seek a cultural and historical perspective on the topic.”

Toth notes his fascination with the French penal colonies, and particularly Mettray, was cultivated by French moral philosopher Michel Foucault, who authored “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Modern Prison.”

“I was always struck by the fact Foucault traced the birth of the modern prison to Mettray and that he believed Mettray represented the disciplinary form in which the art of punishment had been perfected,” says Toth, whose most recent work, “Beyond Papillon: The French Overseas Penal Colonies, 1854-1952,” was published in 2006 by the University of Nebraska Press as part of its “France Overseas” series.

“Foucault never really discussed the institution in any real depth, and there was very little published on the subject.

Located in the bucolic Loire valley, Mettray inspired the establishment of some 50 new institutions during the 1840s which made the agricultural colony the most common form of incarceration for juvenile delinquents in France. In fact, colonies based on the Mettray model were opened in Great Britain, the Netherlands and the U.S.

Mettray’s founders aimed to rehabilitate criminal youths through agricultural work, basic elementary schooling, and strict military discipline.

Delinquent children were removed not only from the common adult prisons where they were typically housed, but also from the perceived evil influences of the city. Toth’s research indicates that while Mettray promised benevolent reform it was not all it was reported to be. In fact, by the early 20th century, it had devolved from the reformist vision of its founders to a brutal custodial care facility.

“There was a shared belief that industrialization and urbanization had corrupted morality and was to blame for crime among adults and children,” Toth says. “Both the overseas penal colonies and the agricultural colonies shared a Rousseauian belief in the power of the land to rehabilitate the man. Whether tilling the soil of the Loire or clearing the jungle in French Guiana, this was a reaction to the birth of economic and social modernity in 19th-century France.

“Once it became clear that this romantic belief was untenable, however, both the overseas penal colonies and Mettray became criminal dumping grounds.”

Steve Des Georges

director strategic marketing and communication, Enterprise Marketing Hub