Think on me
That am with Phoebus’ amorous pinches black…
Antony and Cleopatra (1.5.28-29)
‘Cleopatra wasn’t black’
John Caird, Director, Antony and Cleopatra, RSC, 1992
Othello represents a site through which the problem of the black body in the white imaginary becomes visible, gets worked through.
Barbara Hodgdon, The Shakespeare Trade, 1998
Four black-and-white production photographs lie side by side on the library table. When they first turned up in the Royal Shakespeare Company archives, they took me aback. The earliest captures a representation of race so embarrassingly crude that it put me in mind of Al Jolson singing ‘Swanee’ in The Jazz Singer. It’s an image that works a cruel retrospective exposure upon the post-war, post-imperial cultural moment in Britain that produced it. The only way I (whose racial consciousness reached adolescence in the summer of 1969, post-Kennedy, post-Martin Luther King, forced into thought by black power and stu-dent protest) could read this image without aversion was historically, as a witness of ‘the way we were’. Later, though, dozens of similar images from subsequent productions emerged from the archives. Seeing in them newer versions of what I’d taken to be a redundant racial representation continuously re-inserted into contemporary performance, I realized I wasn’t looking at ‘history’ but at politics—a politics of performance.
The production photograph is, of course, an odd sort of document, both a record and a non-record, for it violates two basic conditions of theatrical activity: that performance happens continuously, across time, and that performance is ephemeral. It’s not supposed to last. 1 The photograph