The Othello whisperer: A Q&A with Ayanna Thompson

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ASU’s Ayanna Thompson talks about her path from Wall Street analyst to Shakespearean scholar and what race has to do with the Bard of Avon.

Photo by Andy DeLisle

By Robin Tricoles

July 9, 2019

Ayanna Thompson is the director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Arizona State University. She is currently working on a collection of essays on Shakespeare and race and is the 2018-19 president of the Shakespeare Association of America.

Recently, Thompson sat down with a Knowledge Enterprise writer to discuss her work on Shakespeare and race and how she shifted from Wall Street investment banker to medieval scholar.

Question: You explore race in Shakespeare’s work. Would you put your research into context for me?

Answer: Shakespeare was writing plays in the late 16th century and early 17th century. He wrote a few characters that we now would call characters of color, like Othello and Cleopatra. We know it was white men performing all of the parts on stage in Shakespeare’s lifetime. We also know from some early modern archival evidence that those characters would have been performed with racial prosthetics. That’s a mixture of wigs, gloves, visors, masks or bitumen, which is a kind of tar. The female parts were played by younger male apprentice actors who were anywhere from age 12 to 15.

Q: In American minstrel shows, white actors wearing blackface mocked and parodied black Americans. You’ve traced the rise of minstrelsy to Shakespeare’s plays. Would you talk a little about that?

A: Some of the earliest recorded performances of Shakespeare by men of color were done by men who were imprisoned in the early 19th century. Black prisoners were putting on “Romeo and Juliet.”

But because the theaters were segregated, William Brown, who was an entrepreneurial West Indian, decided he needed an entertainment space for recently freed slaves and freedmen. So, he opened the African Grove theater, which was in New York. It was a tea garden, a hangout and a theater. He started putting on productions of Shakespeare.

At the time, there were two white theater companies putting on “Richard III,” and they were upset that there was a rival production at the African Grove Theater. So, white theater reviewers, who had to sit in the balcony, published reviews lambasting actor James Hewlett who performed as Richard III and Hamlet. The reviewers claimed that he didn’t know any of the words he sang and that he was a poor actor.

Also, we think a British Shakespearean actor named Charles Matthews went to one of these productions when Hewlett was playing Hamlet. Matthews then returned to England and started a burlesquing performance about blacks he saw in America. He wrote a song, “Possum up a Gum Tree,” which was one of the first black minstrel songs.

At the same time, a production of “Othello” was touring around the northeast with white actors in blackface. A man named T.D. Rice, otherwise known as Daddy Rice, was in the audience. This was 1833. At the intermission of “Othello,” he put on blackface makeup and did “Jump Jim Crow” for the first time, which launched the start of the minstrel tradition. Later, he toured around the world as Daddy Rice in minstrel shows. The image of the minstrel in the straw hat, that’s him, that’s Rice.

So, minstrelsy was born out of Shakespeare productions, whether you tie it to the freed black men in New York or you tie it to “Othello” itself. It’s a history that we have whitewashed because the narrative we have around Shakespeare is that he’s our spinach. He’s universally good for you. When, in fact, it’s much more complicated than that.

Q: How did you come to know about the link between Shakespeare and minstrelsy?

A: I worked on “Othello” because I wrote the new introduction to the Arden edition of “Othello,” which is the definitive edition of the play. I had to work through all the performance history and complications around it. But aside from that, I also work with practitioners, theater actors, directors and companies, and I became an unofficial Othello whisperer.

Q: An Othello whisperer?

A: When theater companies put together a production of “Othello,” their actor of color frequently ends up having a mental breakdown during production. So, they’ll call me. They’ll say, we heard you worked with so-and-so. Will you come talk with our actor and tell us what’s going on?

Q: What do you tell these actors?

A: First, Iago’s part is larger, and the actor playing Iago is duping Othello and working with the audience. Iago’s part also gets more time with director. So, the actor of color often feels caught out, disempowered, exactly what the play itself does to the character. But the actor has not been prepared in any way for that. So, he ends up feeling distressed, almost jealous of the relationship Iago has with the director.

He feels upset with the predominantly white audience, because it’s always a predominantly white audience who is on Iago’s side. He’s incredibly vulnerable. So, I got called a lot to help the actors work through these issues. And through that, this also led me back to this history.

To be an actor, you have to be 100% emotionally available, but you don’t want to be emotionally available for this. This is psychologically damaging. I got a call from the actor, who told me he didn’t know if he could finish the run. He didn’t think it would happen to him. I call it the Shakespeare vortex. You’ve been conditioned to think this is good. And if you’re feeling bad about Shakespeare, there’s something wrong with you. But there is a direct line from Shakespeare to minstrelsy.

Q: Why did you choose to study Shakespeare?

A: I actually started my life as an investment banker because success was to make money. I got that Wall Street job. I was in the oil and gas group at Lehman Brothers. That’s where I started, in the early 90s. I was the first black female analyst ever hired at Lehman Brothers.

I knew if I stayed I could make more money than I ever imagined, but this wasn’t the way I wanted to live my life. So, I called my mother, and I said, “Are you sitting down? I think I’m going to quit and go to graduate school in English.”

And she started weeping. She said, “I’ve never been prouder in my life.” She was happy that I had come to the right decision, which means that doing something meaningful is much more valuable than making money.

Before I worked as an analyst, my undergraduate supervisor, Edward Said, was doing amazing work on the modern British novel that was getting at the roots of colonialism and race. I realized then that if you’re interested in racialized epistemology, how we come to think about race, you end up in the Renaissance. And if you end up in the Renaissance, then you have to do Shakespeare.

So, for me, Shakespeare is a great tool because it has everything that I’m interested in: race and racialized thinking, racialized discourse, how fraught it is, how intersectional it is, and how it’s always tied to sexuality and gender. It’s all there in Shakespeare’s plays and not necessarily in a progressive uplifting narrative. It’s messy.

I feel that if you teach Shakespeare, you reach a huge group. It’s great to be able to ask how does misogyny work here? How does racism work here? Why does it work?

Q: You mentioned that you were at ASU for nine years and then got a position at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., not far from where you grew up in Maryland. What brought you back to ASU?

A: I went to George Washington to work with a medievalist there named Jeffrey Cohen. We team-taught classes and organized conferences together. He’s my thought partner. He’s someone I admire. He’s now the dean of humanities here. So, I came back.

I’m so happy to be here. I’m 100% down with the mission of ASU. I really believe in it. I see it in my classroom. So, I’ve made the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies to be about inclusivity, about access, about increasing the pipeline of going into the profession and about changing the kind of dialogues we can have in medieval and renaissance studies.

I love my work. I do believe I have the best job in the world.

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