Academic journal article Shakespeare Bulletin

Two Actors on Shakespeare, Race, and Performance: A Conversation between Harry J. Lennix and Laurence Fishburne

Academic journal article Shakespeare Bulletin

Two Actors on Shakespeare, Race, and Performance: A Conversation between Harry J. Lennix and Laurence Fishburne

Article excerpt

This conversation between Harry J. Lennix and Laurence Fishburne took place on July 19, 2008 in a card in Manhattan. Shakespeareans will recognize Lennix from Julie Taymor's Titus (2000) in which he played Aaron the Moor. Fishburne, of course, played Othello in Oliver Parker's 1995 film. As I was aware that Lennix and Fishbume have had previous conversations and debates about Shakespeare, race, and performance, I asked Lennix if he wouldn't mind having another conversation "on the record." He graciously agreed, met Fishburne in New York, and tape-recorded the conversation. Performance historians and theorists will find a wealth of material in this conversation because it moves through so many of the topics we debate: What are the "residual" effects of Shakespeare's language on one's world view? What is the difference between an "authentic" portrayal of a black man and a "facsimile" of one? How does a black actor "figure" a way "around" or "through" playing Othello with pride? What are the back stories black actors must invent to play Shakespearean roles? Moreover, there is a fascinating through-line within the conversation about the history of, relationships among, and advice passed between the black actors who have played Othello. Lennix says, "I mean, there's been so many," and he and Fishburne go on to mention Paul Robeson, Earle Hyman, Roscoe Lee Browne, William Marshall, Morgan Freeman, Keith David, Eammon Walker, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Likewise, the conversations Lennix and Fishburne create between William Shakespeare and August Wilson warrant further examination and analysis.

The transcript of the conversation has been edited for length, continuity, and style.

--Ayanna Thompson

Laurence Fishburne: There's not that much that I do know about Shakespeare really. Although I appear to be scholarly and learned and all of these things, I'm really a self-taught guy. I love language, and, as an English speaker, the language of Shakespeare speaks to me because I'm a monolinguist; I only speak one language properly. I speak all of the dialects of English, but I only speak English. Harry Lennix: It's a fantastic and flexible language.

LF: It really is.

HL: And it is more inclusive, I find, than other languages. It's more permissive.

LF: So loving language, loving accents, all that stuff, and doing the only piece that I've done, which was Othello for film, (1) the thing that Kenneth Branagh said to me that really gave me the proper place to approach it all was that Shakespeare was a better poet than we will ever be actors.

HL: That's probably true, although I'm not sure that Richard Burbage would agree.

LF: Perhaps not, but what it did for me was it gave me a proper jumping off place as an actor. A place from which to approach the text, to approach the character, to approach the play. It gave me the proper perspective, and in that I mean I approached it with a kind of reverence and respect. The kind of respect that it deserves because it's so rich, it's so vast, it's so old, and it seems also to be so timeless.

HL: Yes, in many cases it is. Burbage, you know the famous story Olivier tells us, and it's all conjecture, but he reckons that one day Burbage, who was Shakespeare's leading tragedian, said "There's no part that you can write that I can't play," and the next day Shakespeare wrote Othello.

LF: Okay. Got it.

HL: And I would have to imagine that you know, as well as I since we have both played the part, that it is deceptive. (2) Although, I think you did a much better job: I don't want to sound falsely modest.

LF: Ah man. Bless you, bless you.

HL: It's a deceptive part. I was twenty-seven when I tried it. Chiwetel [Ejiofor] just did it; I don't know how old he is--he's got to be about thirty. (3)

LF: Yeah, Chewy just did it in London. I heard he got sparkling reviews. I heard he killed it. …

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