Renewing my vows in the wake of the hurricane
Globe Ensemble actor Leaphia Darko shares her relationship with Shakespeare in a year which has seen the fight for racial equality become mainstream discourse
I’m feeling a bit fragile at the minute. The recent hyper visibility of the fight for equality and equity for Black people, a fight which many of us have been undertaking in our own myriad of ways for a lifetime, hit the mainstream discourse like a hurricane and as of the time of writing seems to have disappeared just as quickly.
Being dropped like a racialised hot potato or forgotten like a Christmas toy on Boxing Day has left me mentally and emotionally fatigued. Or maybe it’s just the current heatwave? *checks the thermostat* Almost, but not quite. Whatever it is that I’m feeling, this emotional fug that I don’t have the words to describe, is definitely the result of the long term societal U-turning and flip-flopping on the topic of doing right by Black people. And if I have to read another tweet claiming ‘it doesn’t happen here…’ *insert enraged emoji of your choosing*.
To add to this, the theatre, where I’ve been lucky enough to have earned my livelihood for the three years since leaving drama school, has pretty much ground to a halt. Though amidst the tragedy (and sparing a thought for key workers and those with COVID-19) there has been a little bitter sweet respite. Don’t get me wrong, life as a freelance artist is hard right now but I’ve actually found this change of pace holistically refreshing. I’ve spent time making work for my own production company The London Rep where I’ve forged a space in which I am not ‘othered’, where my every creative move isn’t under a microscope, where I don’t have to duck and dive out of the way of unhelpful, inaccurate and painful pigeonholes.
I’ve spent time making work for my own production company The London Rep where I’ve forged a space in which I am not ‘othered’, where my every creative move isn’t under a microscope
And so when the request came in to write something about Shakespeare through the lens of race, I honestly didn’t know what to say. I still don’t as I type this – this may all be chunky word vomit – I’ve completely switched off from it lately. This is the least Shakespeare-y my head has ever been. I’m left with the emaciated ghosts of half remembered metaphors floating around in that part of my head connected to a world without masks and strategically placed hand sanitiser. If I’m honest, I don’t feel that I really know who Shakespeare is any more and that I won’t until I meet him again, in this brave new world I’ve suddenly woken up in. Without an ass’s head though so things could be worse. In the movie version of my artistic life the Bard would appear at the train station like a long lost friend out of a cloud of mist and I’d say ‘There you are. Wow you’ve changed’ perhaps he’d say ‘You haven’t at all’. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad to be honest.
If I’m honest, I don’t feel that I really know who Shakespeare is any more and that I won’t until I meet him again, in this brave new world I’ve suddenly woken up in
And yet, in terms of writing this article, it is lovely to be asked. And so here’s me, rooting around amongst the skeletons in my Shakespeare closet, seeing if I can still work out which skull is Tybalt’s and which skull is Yorick’s.
I think you are only really qualified to talk about Shakespeare at the moment in time in which you are engaging with him actively, that moment in time when you can hold his iambic mirror up to nature and gain a whole new perspective about the times in which you live. It is a very white, male, Elizabethan perspective but one with its finger on the pulse of humanity nonetheless. Most of us can relate to what it’s like to have parents that don’t understand us, a special someone who doesn’t like us back or that Mercutio-like friend that you just can’t take anywhere.
And so I guess part of my struggle in writing this piece about race is that I only really know Shakespeare as a human. If the script demands that the character I’m playing in a scene loves the other character in the scene, then I love. I don’t love ‘Blackly’ – whatever that would even mean. I do all that I can within the world that we’ve built, on the warm side of the footlights, to serve that scene as fully as I can. If I laugh in a Shakespeare play, I laugh with the whole of me. I’m not stood outside of myself trying to curate my artistic impulses in line with any toxic imaginings society may have of me along racial lines.
And yet I know I must always remain vigilant. I know that for some people in the audience it won’t really matter whether I have 500 lines or 50 in the role or how many years of training I’ve put into my craft, in the minds of those people, Shakespeare and melanin simply don’t mix. I assume because Shakespeare writes of the human condition, that in their mind I am not one, not fully, not quite. But that doesn’t help me play the scene, so I can’t worry about that in the wings or when I look out from the stage into the many pairs of eyes. I know of course that I am not the first black person to be playing these parts and wrestling with these things. I don’t know what I’d be doing now if it wasn’t for the Paul Robesons and the Ida Shepleys of this world and that is moving, motivating, inspiring to me…
But look, I think it comes down to this: I don’t center the white gaze in my work. I became an artist because of my curiosity about the human condition and found in Shakespeare something of an early modern kindred spirit. And that’s why I enjoy engaging with his work.
I know that for some people in the audience it won’t really matter whether I have 500 lines or 50 in the role or how many years of training I’ve put into my craft, in the minds of those people, Shakespeare and melanin simply don’t mix
I became an artist because of my curiosity about the human condition and found in Shakespeare something of an early modern kindred spirit…I’m just tickled by his particular portrait of wacky human behavior and find his word play a joy to behold. And I happen to be black whilst I do it.
I’m not a subscriber to the cult of putting him on a universal pedal stool though. I don’t believe for example that iambic pentameter is deliberately designed to resemble a heartbeat. I think its pure coincidence. That rhythm just happens to occur alot in the English language. There are many cultures, languages and ethnicities with brilliant cannons of classical poetry about love and war and laughter, (and having one too many pints with the lads in Eastcheap) but the rhythmic undercurrent of their speech system is not the same as ours. The variable – the way heightened poetry manifests within a speech system. The constant – the human beings, with hearts that beat the same as ours do, attempting bravely to paint the world around them. So I find the linking of Shakespeare and iambic pentameter, via the human heartbeat, to a universal standard of excellence in the rendering of human emotion, incredibly problematic. It implies that the love other cultures express in their poetry, in being differently aligned with the human heart beat is less excellent, less true. It smacks of colonial delusion to be honest. My admiration of Shakespeare is much simpler, less sweeping; I’m just tickled by his particular portrait of wacky human behavior and find his word play a joy to behold. And I happen to be black whilst I do it.
Do I find it traumatic when my hair and makeup and whether I am lit properly are left to the slightest of after thoughts? Absolutely. To be an actor and play any part in any text is to volunteer with the courage of an artist’s generosity to bring your whole self to the role. So when your whole self is treated as an obstacle to the vision of the production being mounted, the inner dissonance is terrible to live with.
And yet I still do it. It again comes down to this: I don’t centre the white gaze in my work. My relationship to Shakespeare is mine, in all my black glory. I decide the success or not of a job on whether or not it grew me. Am I a more connected, open, musical actor as a result of engaging with his words in this production? Do I see, hear, taste the world in a new way or feel validated by the fact that his 400 year old observations feel like eerie harbingers of mine? There’s a fun in that I think, which is why I’ve never lost interest in his cannon entirely. I do love other writers and want to do other things and have in fact put him to bed of late (not entirely due to the pandemic) because, you know…too much of a good thing and all that. But I think my fascination with his spot on observations of our quirky ways as homo sapiens will stay with me forever.
Going forward, I do have hope in the wake of this hurricane, as theatre slowly but surely begins to rebuild, that it won’t build the same old structures in the same old places but new ones on fresh ground. Ones that will be better at allowing all of me into the space, into the communal endeavor of making the show, into every secret garden, inside every darkened corner of every single word. But I’ve been black a long time and I’m not optimistic and the labour is not mine to do. So in the wake of this mighty hurricane, I seek to control the only thing that I can – my relationship to my work. Irrespective of whether theatre changes or not, I’ve renewed a few vows to myself: I define me, I define my relationship to Shakespeare’s worlds or those of any other writer, I define how big or small, how full of love and light and laughter I am in the theatre space or in any other, come hell or high water, to dare and grow bolder, forever and always, in all my black glory.
Our third Shakespeare and Race festival takes place online with a series of events, workshops and discussions from 21 – 23 August 2020. Find out more and book your tickets.