Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race, and Contemporary America

Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race, and Contemporary America

Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race, and Contemporary America

Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race, and Contemporary America

Synopsis

Notions, constructions, and performances of race continue to define the contemporary American experience, including America's relationship to Shakespeare. In Passing Strange, Ayanna Thompson explores the myriad ways U.S. culture draws on the works and the mythology of the Bard to redefine theboundaries of the color line.Drawing on an extensive - frequently unconventional - range of examples, Thompson examines the contact zones between constructions of Shakespeare and constructions of race. Among the questions she addresses are: Do Shakespeare's plays need to be edited, appropriated, updated, or rewritten to affirmracial equality and retain relevance? Can discussions of Shakespeare's universalism tell us anything beneficial about race? What advantages, if any, can a knowledge of Shakespeare provide to disadvantaged people of color, including those in prison? Do the answers to these questions impact ourunderstandings of authorship, authority, and authenticity? In investigating this under-explored territory, Passing Strange examines a wide variety of contemporary texts, including films, novels, theatrical productions, YouTube videos, performances, and arts education programs.Scholars, teachers, and performers will find a wealth of insights into the staging and performance of familiar plays, but they will also encounter new ways of viewing Shakespeare and American racial identity, enriching their understanding of each.

Excerpt

And the only way to do something more substantial onstage—then and now—is to
discuss one of the defining features of the American experience: race. I don’t know
how anyone, black or white, in America can stand up in front of an audience with a
microphone and never mention it. It’s as if there’s an elephant in the room, and it’s
spraying out elephant diarrhea all over everyone, and no one’s mentioning it. It’s
surreal. My impulse is always to call people’s attention to the situation. Uh, the
elephant? Shitting on you?

—Paul Mooney

Shakespeare can serve as an important signifier for the “native” and minority
cultures in a variety of locations as well as in conditions of contingency and flux. Of
course, there are no overall guarantees of a progressive outcome.
—Jyotsna Singh

It’s like Shakespeare, with a nigga twist.
—AKALA

Like the black American comedian Paul Mooney, I find it impossible to ignore the shitting elephant in the room. Notions, constructions, and performances of race continue to define the contemporary American experience, including our conceptions, performances, and employments of Shakespeare. When I teach Shakespeare in my university classes, when I see a contemporary Shakespearean production on film, the stage (see Figure 1.1), or the Internet, when I hear and see allusions to Shakespeare in commercials, television shows, and the popular media, I see race: whiteness, blackness, Hispanic-ness, Asian-ness, the normatively raced, and the deviantly raced. It is always there; it is always present; it always impacts the way Shakespeare is being employed. And, like Mooney, I am always surprised when others don’t mention it—the good, the bad, and the ugly—because race is the giant elephant in the room. Thus, Passing Strange is my attempt “to call people’s attention to the situation.” It is my attempt to bring contemporary race studies and contemporary Shakespeare studies into an honest and sustained dialogue.

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