Arts journalist and filmmaker Verity Healey speaks with members of the Belarus Free Theatre to discuss how making art in exile has prepared them for making theater during a pandemic.
I once asked an acting teacher, after a few months of Shakespeare, Chekhov, Durang, Shepard, and Kushner, whether it might be possible to introduce some works by writers who weren’t white men. She furrowed her brow in confusion, frowned, cocked her head, and, placing both hands palm down on her desk, responded: “But Matt…you’re not black.”
And anyway, the class wasn’t about all that, it was about getting better at acting and engaging with text, and these writers were master playwrights. Their work was universal.
Ever since then I knew what all artists of color come to know eventually: that our white counterparts are rarely required or expected to be familiar with work by great artists of color who came before them (with a few exceptions), but developing artists of color must know all the same work as their white counterparts even while taking it upon themselves to stretch beyond that.
Though I wound up performing a Nilo Cruz monologue as the culminating project in that class to make a point, I was nevertheless over the moon for Shakespeare.
Besides a short stint as a stegosaurus in a daycamp between first and second grade, my first real experience acting was in a Shakespeare play. In my sophomore year of high school, I was cast in the school’s production of As You Like It, where I was cast as Charles the wrestler and Corin the old shepherd, which set me off on the long theatrical path to eventually winding up part of the Civilians’ R&D group. I worked at a Shakespeare theater two summers in a row, played parts in Midsummer and Macbeth in college (and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, for good measure). I loved understanding Elizabethan English or, where I didn’t, researching it. I loved breaking apart towering sentences for their imagery, their antithesis, their double meanings. I loved scanning lines and beating out rhythms on the table or my thigh, each irregularity a treasure, a clue, a message from Shakespeare himself.
I had read a bunch of the plays and sonnets in various English classes, too, which always produced the weird feeling I’m sure is common in diaspora kids of being in two camps at once: both ownership over the text as something you’re native to (“The greatest writer in the English language!”) and a simultaneous foreignness. I bristled every time a teacher asserted Shakespeare’s “universality,” noting that a major reason everyone “gets” Shakespeare is that the culture that produced him and that he in turn helped produced was imposed on people around the world at gunpoint. It’s no wonder I was drawn to Shakespeare’s own outsiders, his rare depictions of racial or religious minorities providing a weird window into Elizabethan conceptions of race and the “other.” Othello and Shylock were particularly compelling (and continue to be, as borne out by my play The Venetians), as characters who are often monstrous racial stereotypes on the one hand while still rendered with surprisingly human moments on the other. Human enough that it made me want to salvage pieces of them. As activist and University of Arizona professor Curtis Acosta said when we spoke, “…those things were really attractive to me as someone who was just figuring out what it really meant to be a man of color… I think I was just attracted to it because of all these things I recognized in it.”
Drown My Book began in 2012 when I’d read that the Tucson Unified School District had begun removing Mexican American Studies texts from classrooms and boxing them up in storage facilities in compliance with a ruling that accused ethnic studies programs of, among other things, advocating for the overthrow of the US government. As horrible as all this was, I wasn’t expecting Shakespeare to be part of all of this, and certainly not on the opposite side of the law. In a news release dated January 17th, 2011, TUSD Director of Communications Cara Rene lists seven removed books (Critical Race Theory, by Richard Delgado; 500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures, edited by Elizabeth Martinez; Message to AZTLAN, by Rodolfo Corky Gonzales; Chicano! The History of the Mexican Civil Rights Movement, by Arturo Rosales; Occupied America: A History of Chicanos by Rodolfo Acuna; Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire; and Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years by Bill Bigelow) and goes on to say:
“Other books have also been falsely reported as being banned by TUSD. It has been incorrectly reported that William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” is not allowed for instruction. Teachers may continue to use materials in their classrooms as appropriate for the course curriculum. “The Tempest” and other books approved for curriculum are still viable options for instructors.”
When I spoke to Acosta, however, he told me a different story. The Tempest is a difficult text to teach and discuss without touching on colonialism, slavery, and the genocide of indigenous peoples in the Americas. In fact, as Ronald Takaki points out in his essay, “The Tempest in the Wilderness: The Racialization of Savagery,” The Tempest “invites us to view English expansion not only as imperialism but as a defining moment in the making of an English-American identity based on race.” The character Caliban – the wizard Prospero’s powerful, surly, supernatural, half-human slave, born to rule the island but usurped when the Wizard arrived – has been refigured by creators such as Aimé Césaire and Jimmie Durham as a victim of colonization, struggling under the yoke of a foreign oppressor. In Acosta’s hands, the inevitability of discussing these topics became a tool for illustrating certain failures of the law:
“I found all my notes from all these horrible administrative meetings I had. We were trying to figure out what was legal and illegal, and I knew right away that the day of – it was January 10th, I know all these dates now because I was just writing about it – January 10th […] was the board meeting, and that night when we were suspended I leaned over to a colleague and said, “Tomorrow I’m getting Shakespeare banned.” And so I went into that meeting with an agenda but also I knew that there was no other way it was gonna go because the law was so poorly written, and so obviously racist, discriminatory… that if I just made the argument they would have to. Now this is the thing that changed: In the moment, the day after, there was still a shred of humanity in the administration I was dealing with at my site, and then after, they tried to cover their tracks and didn’t know that we were going to release the audio. They went on full scale – the district administration – went on this full scale attack after I told reporter friends of mine, “Yeah, I can’t teach it. They told me I can’t teach The Tempest.” And so they went on this full scale attack all but calling me personally a liar. […] But we ended up being able to prove it because I did record it. That was the last meeting they allowed me to record. It wasn’t the last meeting recorded, but it was the last meeting they allowed me to record. But thank God I did!”
Caliban, like Othello and Shylock, has come to occupy a special place in my relationship to Shakespeare, but what gripped me so much about what was happening in Tucson is that this play, part of a revered Western canon, found itself on the side of the marginalized, an emblem used to point out the weaknesses in the structures and impulses it once served to help prop up.
There’s a line in Star Trek IV: The Undiscovered Country (the title itself a reference to Hamlet), where a Klingon character insists, “You’ve not experienced Shakespeare until you’ve read him in the original Klingon.” It’s a joke, and yet…
I became taken (and still am taken, and so knew immediately which project to propose to The Civilians) with the idea of a group of Latin students grappling directly with these contradictions, taking Shakespeare’s words and turning them on the authorities, using the school’s curriculum against it.
In The Tempest, Prospero’s books of arcane knowledge are his most prized possession, which he guards jealously and devotes himself to entirely; in Tucson, books had been torn from classrooms because of the ideas they held and hoarded away in warehouses. The title, Drown My Book, came to me immediately, and I’ve stuck with it. It’s from Prospero’s last speech, where he throws away his magic staff and library, pledging never to use them again: “And deeper than did ever plummet sound / I’ll drown my book.”
In her play Une Tempête, Césaire turned Caliban into a revolutionary; the students in my play would use The Tempest as a revolutionary tool.
Durham’s Caliban Codex shows us a Caliban obsessed with trying to figure out what his own fact looks like, having never seen a reflection and only knowing what Prospero tells him about himself; my characters, accustomed to not seeing themselves reflected in other parts of the syllabus, would use a canonical text to fight to keep the one mirror they’d been given.
Rather than bend and compartmentalize themselves, as so many young people are forced to (as I was forced to in that acting class) the characters in my play would bend Shakespeare to serve them.
Maybe that’s what we should mean when we say that Shakespeare is “universal:” not an appeal to bland relatability, but instead that the sheer reach of Shakespeare’s influence over how we understand stories and the written word now means that he can be enlisted by anyone to serve new purposes.
Drown My Book will have a work-in-progress showing on May 29th at 7pm. RSVP here.