Black Shakespeare(ans) Database

Ayanna Thompson

Regents Professor of English

Director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (ACMRS)

Arizona State University


All too often classically trained actors of color, and especially black Shakespeareans, are lauded in the mainstream media for being the first: the first to play Macbeth; the first to play Emilia; the first to direct Othello on Broadway (oh, wait, that hasn’t happened yet!). Stories of “firstness” are easy to sell because they privilege exceptionality—the exceptional black artist who truly understands Shakespeare. While it is important to document, note, and praise the people who break through glass ceilings, narratives of “firstness” often fixate on the “Exceptional Negro” while simultaneously obscuring the long history black Americans have had with Shakespeare on both the page and the stage. 

The “Black Shakespeare(ans) Database” offers a more complex and dynamic portrait of the history of black American engagement with Shakespeare than these simplistic narratives of firstness. Beginning with black artists working today, the BSD plumbs their stories about their introductions, trainings, performances, dreams, desires, and more, allowing the practitioners to explain what Shakespeare means to them and their work, and inviting them to imagine what Shakespeare could mean to their work in the future. A rich qualitative project that invites expansion, Professor Ndiaye’s BSD takes off where Errol Hill’s Shakespeare in Sable (1984) left off, by privileging the perspective of the black artists themselves. And what rich and complex perspectives they are.

One of the amazing through-lines within these interviews is the seemingly superhuman power that primary and secondary teachers have to spark a love of Shakespeare and performance among their students of color. After reading through the stories on BSD, I leave wanting to inspire more teachers to employ performance-based classroom techniques. Do they know how often black Shakespeareans trace their careers back to a specific teacher and a specific performance in the 8th grade?! If they did, what would they change? I predict that BSD will inspire many other research projects, and I cannot wait to see how and where it will grow!

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