Academic journal article Shakespeare Bulletin

Casting for Racial Harmony: Strategies of Redemption in Caleen Sinnette Jennings's Double Play

Academic journal article Shakespeare Bulletin

Casting for Racial Harmony: Strategies of Redemption in Caleen Sinnette Jennings's Double Play

Article excerpt

Caleen Sinnette Jennings's intertwined two-play sequence Playing Juliet/Casting Othello (1998) activates three distinct meanings of casting. (1) Most obvious is the metadramatic scenario of characters who are casting Shakespearean parts for two productions by a multiracial company called New Vistas. Here Jennings explicitly engages two recent major developments--and disruptive transformations--in the history of casting practices in Shakespearean performance.

The first is the historic breakthrough in having black actors play black characters, a shift signified by Paul Robeson's performance of Othello, a part which was originally invented for a white actor in blackface and from which blacks were actively excluded. Robeson's appearance as Othello in the highly visible theatrical site of Broadway in 1943 stands as the symbolic moment of change for black male actors' irreversible entrance into the field of Shakespearean performance. (2) The expansion of possibilities for black actors continued a decade later through a second initiative: colorblind and other forms of non-traditional casting originating with Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival in the 1950s. (3) Ultimately Jennings's plays place us in a complex situation by asking us to contemplate the juxtaposition of these two innovations in casting as they affect our perception of race. When we view Jimmy's role as a black Shakespearean character through the lens of race, Jennings presents us with an energized, positive picture. Yet when we look at Georgia's colorblind roles through the same lens, the plays show an ambivalent, enervated result. The two vantage points clash and Jennings forces the issue by bringing the two characters together in marriage.

The second meaning of casting concerns the two linked plays as a love story. In addition to the professional challenges of their Shakespearean roles, the characters as themselves enact personal dramas of falling in love. The company consists of six actors--three black (two female and one male) and three white (one female and two male)--who are in effect auditioning for potential partners. As the love relationships are tested over the course of the two plays, three couples are formed to create a social microcosm that displays a representative spectrum of racial variations: one white pair (Wendy and Dave), one interracial pair (Lorraine and Chris), and one black pair (Georgia and Jimmy). The process by which they experience and resolve the difficulties that they encounter with love exerts a shaping force in the dramatic outcome.

The public plot as Shakespearean actors and the private plot as lovers overlap through the shared focus on race. This effect of a racial double plot intensifies both the problem and the need for a solution with regard to Shakespeare and race, understood both as race in the context of Shakespeare and Shakespeare in the context of race. Hence the third meaning of casting involves "casting about" in the sense of trying to find the racial harmony indicated in my title. From this standpoint, the two plays are dramatic explorations that seek a way to make the two plots--the characters' professional and personal lives--mesh and work together in terms of race. At the end, the question is not only "What is racial harmony?" but also "How is it achieved?" The phrasal verb, "to cast about," leads in slightly different directions depending on the respective tones of two definitions. The first, "to search or look for," implies an exploratory mode that is open-ended. The second, "to devise means, contrive," places an emphasis on making it happen through active construction involving artificial means. The use of artifice in theatre comes as no surprise, but the interest lies in the precise details of how the artful structuring operates.

The primary relationship in the two plays is the one between Georgia and Jimmy. Pivoting on the slash, the double title, Playing Juliet/Casting Othello, implicitly names the black pair--Georgia plays Juliet and Jimmy is cast as Othello--as the organizing principle of the overall dramatic design. …

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