As is typical for many of us, my first exposure to Shakespeare was in a literature class. However, my relationship to Shakespeare’s works was shaped by the larger cultural context I encountered them in. In the United Arab Emirates where I was raised, books weren’t initially all that easy to either find or afford, and censorship limited the options even further. Moreover, the official stance of the school I attended was that fiction was a dangerous distraction from “real” educational pursuits. Despite this- or perhaps because of it- I was a voracious reader. As I got older I became increasingly frustrated by the limitations of our library, and in a world that hadn’t yet gone digital I was also irked by the censorship that made so many books and therefore knowledge inaccessible. Then came Shakespeare.
While it might shock my students in 2020 that sixteenth and seventeenth century writing could ever seem provocatively cutting edge, that was exactly how it felt to me. The plays addressed topics- particularly government and sex- in ways that should have incensed censors, yet the texts were being taught in schools. The language was beautiful to me the same way the Qur’an is beautiful; I didn’t always understand what I was hearing, but I was aware of profound truths masterfully and musically told. But unlike Arabic, which I was never fluent in, my English was strong enough to uncover textual secrets that felt like they were meant just for me.
Loving Shakespeare felt anarchic, even moreso when I began performing in a historically all-female troupe in college. Performing Shakespeare emancipated me from cultural and gender identities I found restrictive. The possibility of auditioning for any of the roles, and that any of Shakespeare’s words could be mine, was thrilling. When I was elected to direct, the compulsion to frame the story in ways that felt personal and honest to my lived experience was the barometer I measured my artistic integrity by. These assumptions were naive and self-centered. More than that, they were harmful.
I have several favorite Shakespearean characters, but the character I have most I longed to play is Iago. We did not produce Othello in my senior year of college, but we did produce Titus Andronicus. After reading this little-produced play for the first time, I realized that there was a compelling character that would be as close to Iago as I might ever have the chance to play. That character is Aaron.
If you don’t know the play- and it’s okay if you don’t, few people do- the key thing to know is that Aaron is Black. He is a character whose Blackness defines him. In my ignorance, I justified my relative not-whiteness as qualifying me for the role in a troupe that had almost no people of color. It took me almost a decade to look back and acknowledge that, even in the context of an intentionally ridiculous production, my decision to audition for and accept the role was not just ridiculous but deeply offensive and profoundly harmful. I can not apologize enough for that harm.
Barely out of my teens and new to the United States, my understanding of the implications of cultural appropriation were just as scant as my understanding of the history of racial discrimination in the American theatre and in higher education. When I was twenty, I directed a production of Romeo and Juliet set in medieval Spain, presenting the feud between the Capulets and Montagues in the context of religious tension between the historic populations of Christians and Muslims in Cordoba. It is still difficult not to be extraordinarily proud of the work that my peers made. The performances were deeply moving. The lighting and costuming were gorgeous… and the actors wearing those costumes, which included turbans and veils, were almost all white. The suspension of disbelief already at play given our cast of young actors made this leap seem minor by comparison, and the characters I saw populating the stage spurned a recognition in me that felt honest to the story. I thought I had done my homework, that I was making the story fresh and relatable. But what I was working towards was a production that spoke to me, and not the audiences that came to see it or to the students that were producing it.
In the fifteen years since then, I have gone on to have a career in theatre as a scenic designer, and a few years ago began a parallel career as an educator. This year, I have been given the opportunity to lead a fantastic group of students into the world of Romeo and Juliet once again. To lead, teach, and make theatre with integrity in 2020 requires that I accept accountability for my past mistakes, and hold myself publicly accountable to do far, far better this time. This blog documenting our production process is part of that accountability. Primarily, however, this is a space to celebrate the students, who will be guiding the adaptation process for our production. I can not wait to share their work with you all.