Kim Hall is the Lucyle Hook Chair and Professor of English and Africana Studies at Barnard College. This interview with her was first published in 2007 on the Shakespeare in American Life website.
Paul Robeson was the first modern African American to perform Shakespeare—to perform Othello, and he talks in his letters and in his essays about bringing his experiences as a student in a white arena, his experiences with racism, to the performance.
So for him as an actor, he brought his experience as an African American in a racist society to this performance of Othello, a black man in a racist society. Other actors who saw him said it was like seeing Othello for the first time. And the kind of association of Othello with African Americans certainly is because of African American performance and because of people like Paul Robeson. I’ve met people now who saw him originally and they still can’t get it out of their mind. So I always wish I had been able to see such a thing.
And also, African Americans who were not actors have brought Shakespeare into their repertoire. Duke Ellington, who’s always associated with a completely American form, jazz, did a twelve-part suite based on Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets called Such Sweet Thunder. I was looking at Maya Angelou’s autobiography and she says that Shakespeare was her first white love, and she says it’s because Shakespeare said, “When in disgrace with fortune in men’s eyes.” And I remembered that when I was required to memorize a sonnet in high school, that was the sonnet I picked—and I hadn’t read Angelou at that point. So somehow she and I both, on our own, kind of saw this as poetry that spoke to being marginal and being outcast. And being able to redeem oneself or to see oneself as part of a community through love.
So, this idea one can bring an individual experience to Shakespeare, and to the performance of Shakespeare, and reshape Shakespeare slightly, I think is a great contribution that African Americans have made to the performance and to the study of Shakespeare.
African Americans, coming out of an oral tradition, I think have a certain appreciation for Shakespeare as someone who also comes out of an oral tradition and I think that makes Shakespeare quite livelier than if you just think of Shakespeare as words on a page. I guess the most vivid example I have of African Americans bringing oral tradition to Shakespeare would be a performance I saw of The Tempest directed by George Wolfe, with Patrick Stewart as Prospero. And in the masque scene, which I have to confess I sleep through in almost every performance, he had stilt dancers perform the masque scene, and it wasn’t long stretches of poetry, but it was this amazing kind of oral performance that included music and dance in a really vibrant and amazing way. And it did actually make me think about the language more.
But I think that’s something, not that white people don’t think about, but that’s something that is so part of African American culture that you bring, that African American directors and performers bring, that understanding to Shakespeare. Which is something in classes I have to really get students to think about, because they’re so used to reading a big tome with all of Shakespeare’s plays and only thinking about it as kind of words on a page, rather than something that happened in a really lively arena, and that was heard, not read.
Listen to the Shakespeare in American Life radio documentary.