Black History Month: A Shakespeare Unlimited podcast playlist

Paul Robeson Othello
Robert Edmond Jones. Costume design for Paul Robeson as “Othello”. Ink and gouache drawing with fabric swatches attached, 1943. Folger Shakespeare Library.

To commemorate Black History Month in February, we’re sharing a playlist of Shakespeare Unlimited episodes about the African American experience, important global figures, and the history of Shakespeare performance in Africa and the Caribbean. The podcast is available on iTunes, SoundCloud, Google Play, and NPR One.

Shakespeare in Black and White

This podcast episode revisits the era when Jim Crow segregation was at its height, from a few years after the end of the Civil War to the 1940s and 1950s. The discussion ranges from landmark performances—Orson Welles’s Depression-era all-black Macbeth and Paul Robeson’s Othello— to powerful, though less familiar, stories from the Folger’s hometown of Washington, DC. It also draws in later questions about African Americans and Shakespeare, including the role of race in casting choices to this day.

African Americans and Shakespeare

This podcast episode examines some of the many ways—including, but not limited to, performance—that black Americans have encountered, responded to, taken ownership of, and sometimes turned away from Shakespeare’s words.

Othello and Blackface

This podcast episode, which deals with race, Othello, and how the Elizabethans portrayed blackness onstage, offers a startling, new interpretation of Desdemona’s handkerchief that is changing the way scholars understand the play.

American Moor

Othello is the story of a tragic murder and suicide involving a dark-skinned general and his aristocratic, white-skinned bride. Who should direct it?  Who’s “allowed” to? What if a white director and the actor he’s cast as Othello simply do not see eye-to-eye on the play’s subtext, the Moor’s motivations, and what the audience is supposed to take away from the production?

That conflict is at the heart of a one-man show currently being performed around the country called American Moor. In it, a black actor – the play’s author, Keith Hamilton Cobb – stands on stage and addresses an invisible, white director who simply does not “get” Othello. Their disagreement allows for a searing exploration of the gulf between black and white Americans that some like to believe simply does not exist.

Shakespeare in Africa

When the British came to colonize the African continent in the middle of the 1800s, they brought Shakespeare with them. But after the British left power, it was often Shakespeare who leaders in African countries summoned to push back against the colonial experience — using his words to promote unity, elevate native languages, and critique the politics of the time.

The Robben Island Shakespeare

This podcast episode is about Nelson Mandela, the first black president of South Africa. While Mandela was incarcerated on South Africa’s Robben Island, one of the other political prisoners managed to retain a copy of Shakespeare’s complete works, which was secretly circulated through the group. At that prisoner’s request, many of the others—including Mandela—signed their names next to their favorite passages.

Shakespeare in the Caribbean

Shakespeare and his plays are woven deeply into the culture of the Caribbean, both white and black. Even after centuries of British colonial rule came to an end, Shakespeare endured.

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