Pioneers and the Shakespearean glass ceiling
In the first of our guest series Black Shakespeareans, Dr Jami Rogers takes a look at the careers of two early pioneers of Black British Shakespeare – Joseph Marcell and Rudolph Walker
When Rudolph Walker was offered the chance to play Othello at Malvern Festival Theatre for three weeks in 1966, he jumped at the chance. At the time, an African-Caribbean man playing Othello was so far from the norm that when Walker called his then-agent to say he’d been offered the job, her reaction was: “Which part are you going to play?” When Joseph Marcell played Othello in 1984, he remembers Patrick Stewart “coming up to me and saying, ‘You know, I’ve never seen Othello played by a black person before.’” It may be difficult to imagine a time when only white actors were cast as Othello, but only four African-Caribbeans played the part on stage in Britain in the 50 years between 1930 and 1980: Paul Robeson, Gordon Heath, Errol John, Cy Grant and Rudolph Walker.
Joseph Marcell and Rudolph Walker were two of the early pioneers of Black British Shakespeare, although there has been little recognition of their contribution – and that of their contemporaries. Both started their careers when a colour bar in Shakespeare was in operation. When Walker played Othello in 1966, he was one of only four people of colour cast in a Shakespeare role and throughout the 1970s there were similarly sparse numbers in terms of inclusion. The Royal Shakespeare Company hired its first performers of colour in 1967 and for much of the next decade, the company was the only venue to consistently hire people from African-Caribbean or south Asian backgrounds in Shakespeare productions.
‘When Walker played Othello in 1966, he was one of only four people of colour cast in a Shakespeare role and throughout the 1970s there were similarly sparse numbers in terms of inclusion’
Joseph Marcell joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1972 for Trevor Nunn’s The Romans season, which consisted of Julius Caesar, Titus Andronicus, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus. The RSC had only recently begun hiring people of colour and 1972 was a major breakthrough with seven performers of colour: Darien Angadi, Loftus Burton, Joseph Charles, Calvin Lockhart, Joseph Marcell, Tony Osoba and Jason Rose. It would be the largest intake of performers of colour at the RSC for nearly thirty years. Joseph Marcell recalls the importance of that Romans season, because “it was the first time we were members of the company.”
The Shakespearean colour bar of the 1970s resembles that of the wider industry of theatre and television. When performers of colour were included, it was almost always in a part that the white establishment deemed ‘suitable.’ What this meant, in reality, were parts that specifically designated the ethnicity of the character such as the Boy (Jimmy) in Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey or Tituba in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Many of these so-called ‘black parts’ were also characters on the periphery of the action, including household servants. This attitude seeped into the casting of Shakespeare, translating servant characters into ‘black parts.’ According to an interview in the Ottawa Citizen with the South African-born co-founder of Temba Theatre Company, Alton Kumalo, he vociferously objected to playing a string of servants in his five years with the Royal Shakespeare Company between 1967 and 1972: “They argued that Shakespeare did not write black roles and that there weren’t many blacks in England in Elizabethan times.”
‘When performers of colour were included, it was almost always in a part that the white establishment deemed ‘suitable”
The Shakespearean colour bar started to shift in the early 1980s, which was also when Othello slowly became the only lead part in a Shakespearean tragedy people of colour would regularly play. There were a number of ‘firsts’ in that decade that should be acknowledged: Don Warrington (Mark Antony in Julius Caesar), Ewart James Walters (Oberon), Ricco Ross (Prospero), Cathy Tyson (Miranda), Wyllie Longmore (Antony in Antony and Cleopatra), Suzette Llewellyn (Viola). Rudolph Walker and Joseph Marcell both have important ‘firsts’ to their names, including Caliban and Puck respectively.
Walker’s last Shakespeare production was Trevor Nunn’s 1991 Timon of Athens at the Young Vic, in which he was the first performer of colour to play Flavius, the third largest role in the play. Marcell has continued to appear in Shakespeare both in America and in Britain, most recently in the latter at the Globe as Duncan and the Porter in Macbeth in 2018. While the colour bar in Shakespeare has shifted during the careers of Marcell and Walker, it has not shifted much at the top of the canon. Although we have seen more performers of colour in them in recent years, the title roles in major tragedies remain primarily the preserve of white actors. Joseph Marcell’s own appearance for the Globe in King Lear illustrates this, as he is one of only seven performers of colour to have played King Lear in Britain since 1930.
The lack of opportunities in Britain that have existed for classical performers of colour partly stem from a failure to nurture young, black and Asian classical performers up the Shakespearean ladder. Only eight men have played Hamlet in Britain since 1930, another statistic that shows the lack of access to the top parts. To put this into perspective, by 1979 the African-American actor James Earl Jones had played Othello, Hamlet and King Lear along with several other roles. No British performer of colour has yet played that trio of Shakespearean tragic leads, partly because no one offered people like Joseph Marcell, Rudolph Walker, Alton Kumalo or Norman Beaton – or indeed most in the generations that have come after them – the chance to play Hamlet.
Joseph Marcell and Rudolph Walker were interviewed by the author for her forthcoming British Black and Asian Shakespeareans, 1966-2018: Integrating Shakespeare, to be published by Arden Shakespeare.
Statistics are from the British Black and Asian Shakespeare Performance Database, an open access digital humanities resource developed by the author for the AHRC-funded Multicultural Shakespeare project at the University of Warwick.