Photo courtesy of rsc.org.uk
By Ivana Porashka
Addressing the audience in Gailor Auditorium, Phi Beta Kappa’s visiting scholar Dr. Ayanna Thompson began her presentation by boldly asserting,“You all will quickly find out during this talk that I am actually a fraud.” Referencing a comedic routine by Paul Mooney, she continued, “I find it impossible to ignore the shitting elephant in the room.” Notions, constructions, and performances of race continue to define the contemporary American experience, and this includes conceptions of Shakespeare performances.
“When I teach Shakespeare in my university classes, see contemporary Shakespeare productions in film, on the stage or the Internet, find allusions to Shakespeare in the popular media, I see race. Whiteness, blackness, hispanic-ness, Asianness, what is deemed normatively raced and what is deemed the abnormal,” Thompson remarked. “It’s always there. It’s always present. It always impacts the way Shakespeare is being employed. I’m always surprised when others don’t mention it.”
Clarifying her earlier statement of being a “fraud,” Thompson confessed that “unlike my esteemed colleagues here at Sewanee, I am not a trained Shakespearean. In many respects, I am an utter and complete fraud. I entered graduate school after working as an investment banker in the oil and gas group at Lehman Brothers…to study the modern British novel.”
Currently, Thompson is a professor of English at George Washington University, specializing in Renaissance drama and issues of race in/as performance. She is currently working on a collection of essays for Cambridge University Press on Shakespeare and race, and was recently elected as the Vice President and President Elect of the Shakespeare Association of America.
Influenced by postcolonial studies, her work’s frame of analysis centers around race, gender, and power.
During her talk, she provided a quick overview of nontraditional Shakespeare performances, discussed various methodologies within reception studies for theatrical productions, and concluded with an examination of contemporary race studies as a way to interrogate how audiences make sense of the semiotics of race onstage.
“I use the inartful phrase ‘in/as performance’ because I want to capture if, how, when, and why audiences distinguish between interpreting actors’ races as theatrically inconsequential or theatrically meaningful,” Thompson explained.
When race is mentioned in most contemporary reception scholarship, it is as a passing nod to the fact that both the cast and the audience’s diversity may impact reception. “No reception scholarship has dove deeper into race as performance than that. None. No research,” she said.
Thompson agrees with University of Chicago Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor of English and Art History W. J. T. Mitchell’s recent assertion that race should be treated as medium through which we experience, read, and interpret our society. This is especially true for non-traditionally cast productions of Shakespeare.
Mitchell argues that “race is not merely a content to be mediated, an object to be represented visually or verbally, or a thing to be depicted in a likeness or image, but that race is itself a medium and iconic form…not something to be seen, a framework for seeing through.”
If theatre scholars accepted Mitchell’s theory, they would implement race within their methods of reception analysis and essentially revolutionize how data, polls, and surveys are taken and interpreted. In an ideal world, more theatres and scholars would perform deep engagement with audiences, specifically by fostering open dialogues about casting, race, and reception.
Speaking to students, Thompson said, “What I hope comes across is that there is this whole area of research that has been untouched. Your generation is better equipped to do it than the current scholars who are working in the field…I feel like you all are hungry for honest dialogues about identity and will be successful in moving reception studies forward.”