Black Shakespeare(ans) Database

Aldo Billingslea

Artist Profile by Anneliese Merry


Aldo Billingslea is the Father William J. Rewak S. J., Professor of Theatre Arts at Santa Clara University. He holds a B.A. in English and Communication Arts and an M.A. in Secondary Education from Austin College in Sherman, Texas. He earned his M.F.A. in Acting at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. A member of Actor’s Equity Association and the Screen Actor’s Guild, Billingslea has appeared in numerous theatrical productions in the San Francisco Bay Area and across the United States, including the works of Lorraine Hansberry, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Oscar Wilde, Lillian Helman, Thornton Wilder, Marcus Gardley and August Wilson.

Billingslea has performed in more than two dozen Shakespeare plays from Alaska to Texas, and from California to Washington, D.C., as well as in the United Arab Emirates. Favorite productions include Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Paul Robeson at Plano Repertory, The Elephant Man at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, and Othello at Marin Theatre Company and California Shakespeare Theatre.

Billingslea responded to the death of George Floyd by founding a theatre company, leading a national-artistic response on the evening of June 19th, 2020. The Juneteenth Theatre Justice Project was created to address systemic racism, to help center Black artists, and model collaboration for the larger community. Juneteenth Justice is the consulting arm of the organization, born from the need to address issues of power and privilege. We help people identify and address the unseen and overlooked obstacles to the anti-racist environment most desire.

Since arriving at Santa Clara University in 1996, he has served as department chair, on the University’s Blue Ribbon Panel for Diversity and Inclusion, the President’s Athletics’ Advisory Board, and as the University’s Faculty Associate to the NCAA. He has also served as the University’s inaugural Chief Diversity Officer, and as the Vice President for the 100 Black Men of Silicon Valley. Billingslea has served on the Advisory Boards for Archbishop Mitty High School, the Renegade Theatre Experiment and Gritty City Youth Theatre Company, as well as the board of directors for PlayGround, Marin Theatre Company and the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre where he also served as Interim Artistic Director.


Contact Information

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Full Interview Transcript


Merry:  Well With me today is Mr. Aldo Billingslea. Mr. Billingslea is a professor at Santa Clara University where he teaches multiple courses, including American Theatre from the Black perspective, Acting Styles: Shakespeare, and seminars on August Wilson. Alongside his work at the University, Mr. Billingslea is a lifelong professional actor who has appeared in more than two dozen Shakespeare plays, as well as productions of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Fences, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman,Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, and Lorraine Hansberry’s The Sign in Sydney Bernstein’s Window and these are just to name a few of many productions. Again, just to name a few of many, Mr. Billingslea has worked at the American Conservatory Theater, the Aurora Theater, California Shakespeare Theater, Lorraine Hansberry Theater, and the Marin Shakespeare Theater. An incredibly influential performer, creator and educator, I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to meet with you and speak with you today. And thank you so much for being here.


Billingslea:   Thanks for having me.


Merry:   I would love to know a bit more about how you would describe yourself as an actor, a director or a professor, to someone who doesn’t know your work.


Billingslea:   I would say that I’m an actor first. That’s the aspect of the art that I find most compelling and that I am best suited for. I direct. And actually, while I was in Lorraine Hansberry’s Le blanc. I was not actually in The Sign in Sydney Bernstein’s Window, I directed it. It was the first production I directed at Santa Clara. Directing is not my strongest suit. Coaching actors is a better equivalent of what I do as a director. And it’s a little deceptive for some actors, who, if they aren’t clear, if they haven’t taken a lot of classes with me, then they don’t realize that when you get out, that’s not something that often happens. Directors are focusing on literally the big picture. And, and they’re not going to be coaching you through that difficult moment. Because you don’t know how to connect to the emotional scene where your puppy dies, those sorts of things. As an acting teacher, those are moments that I can help with more so. And that’s why I use directing as the lab experience for the actor who’s learning in the rehearsal hall and then gets to jump into the petri dish of the stage.


Merry:  I appreciate that response very much. Thank you. I am going to pull us back to Shakespeare a little bit and ask about when you first got interested in Shakespeare and why you chose to pursue a career in theater and within your theater work specifically, what role Shakespeare plays.


Billingslea:   I do recall coming across a copy of Othello and it was after middle school, but before High School, I was trying to figure some of the language out and asking my mom what the beast with two backs was, and watching her not look at me and answer. So I thought, oh, this may be one of those things. I didn’t try to perform any until my first year in high school. My English teacher Janet Henderson said that we could write a paper or we could perform a scene and I didn’t want to write a paper. And I was like, so we could perform a scene. Alright, so then we go and then we see Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. And I am floored. I am so apart of those dusty dirty streets and these guys running around in tights and they’re swinging this metal and Romeo and Juliet in the bedroom is just you know, that makes me feel funny, but I’m not exactly sure what that’s about either. But the fights are, they were just so thrilling. So I’m playing on the football team and I talk about six guys on the football team into doing this with me and I’m saying we don’t have to do the paper, we can do this. So we all jump up in there. And we don’t have tights. But we do have T-shirts and sweats which is practically the same thing. And we assign roles and I I took Mercutio because of the language, and I thought he would be great. 

And my teacher was so thrilled. We all got such great grades and I, I was furious, I could not have been more frustrated that in my head, we were going to be charging down those streets and the dust and then we couldn’t get the language out, couldn’t get the words. And the other guys on the football team, you know, the wide receiver is not saying the words that are written down and even when I’m saying the words that are written down, they don’t sound anything like any of the characters and Tible didn’t sound like Michael York and just none of it. None of it satisfied. It was so frustrating. And I didn’t have words to understand why. But I thought, yeah, I won’t be doing any more of this. So not until my senior year with being able to say some lines from the Scottish King. And that was a journey of I had struggled in geometry, but I loved proofs. And, and it felt like that. Of trying to figure out, oh, there’s this word here. We don’t know what that is. Let’s look at it in context. And, and if that’s over on this side, it felt almost algebraic. Is there something else that equals something over here? And the antithesis and trying to find the balance and those sorts of things was exciting, but not great. More progress, but still, what I perceive is what’s going to happen is not quite what happened. And this language is still kicking me in my butt. I audition my sophomore year for, my school is putting on Hamlet and they’re doing it in the fall. And in the fall I’m playing football and trying to do football and theater. And, and it was a big deal that I got cast. It’s a small school, really, really small school, you know, there’s, even today, there’s only like 1200 students on the campus. So that I was gonna be in the play, everybody hears and no matter what I do every mistake on the football field: “Billingslea, get your head out Hamlet!!”. And then me coming into rehearsal, trying to eat from dinner, because we just got off the field about 20 minutes before and trying to go into rehearsal. But at the audition, I was doing Polonius, and I had absolutely no clue at all what’s being said, and I thought halfway through it, I was doing the detective work, and I was like, oh, he’s just, he’s just giving advice. He’s just giving advice to his son. And I, I kind of get that, I understand. And then it fell apart on the last line, “go to go to”. And I was like “go to go to” it was just, it was like, oh!, and this language and so I thought it was great. You know, I thought Shakespeare was fun except for Shakespeare. Because he kept getting in the way with this language. 

And then someone in graduate school. I said, you know, yeah, yeah, this is good stuff. Everybody loves him. We’re studying him in graduate school, more classical theater. And I’m like, yeah, but I’m the only black guy of the 12 graduate students in my class. And so you all are looking at this stuff for all the roles you can play. Like for me there’s like two in the canon! And like, “well, actually, there aren’t a lot, but there are more. And, and you should also look at some of the other roles” is what some of my classmates were telling me. I’m like, right, right, right. And someone said, “you know, Aldo, I think you’d make a great Prince of Morocco”. Like, I know who that is. But did you say Prince? He’s a Prince, really? So the ego of the actor is a dangerous thing, Anneliese it’s just awful. At least how many actors does it take to screw in a light bulb?


Merry:  I do not know!


Billingslea:  Just one. They hold on to the light bulb and the world revolves around them. And so I dig into this thing looking for Prince of Morocco, and I see Morocco, but the ego kicks in and I’m like, this is alright. But who was this Shylock? He’s got a lot of lines. What’s up with this Shylock? And I start reading and then I see Shylock say, “Hath not a Jew eyes, not a Jew hands”. And everything he’s saying, I have said, about being black in Texas, where I see people wanting to treat me different because of this. And me trying to say, you wouldn’t do this to yourself, why are you doing this to me, you wouldn’t treat someone who looked like you this way. But it’s okay to do that to me? And I read that over and over, and it hit me like a ton of bricks and wanted so badly to be in that play, and then got cast in it in San Diego, and at the Globe Theatre and the Old Globe in San Diego. And it helped me launch. Hal Holbrook was playing Shylock and I got to hang out in his dressing room, sometimes we’re going over stuff. We started first by doing Tempest. And he was going to do that. But while we were rehearsing Tempest, we were also rehearsing Merchant and Rep. And, the director said, “Whoever comes at me and can explain all of the C terms might be able to get the role of the captain”. And I had read about how Holbrook sailing solo on the South Seas, on for, you know, weeks and for a time out there by himself. And so I was asking him about these things. And we started talking, and he’s helping me break the language down and you have this one on one Shakespeare lesson from him, which was wonderful, and then got to play Morocco when he was playing Shylock. And, from there went on to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. And from there, I work my way around to several Shakespeare theaters. But we, Shakespeare, and I, you know, we have a wonderful relationship now. It was a little rocky at first. He just, he just really wasn’t my type initially, but then, I don’t know, he grew on me. And now we, we went through therapy together, and now we’re much much stronger.


Merry:   I appreciate that. I very much appreciate your answer. And I will ask you a little bit more about, you know, some of your Shakespeare performances, specifically, your performance as Othello with Cal Shakes, just because, you know, part of this database will be going towards helping the production of Othello here at the Court Theatre. But first, I would like to ask you one more question. And this one is kind of an open ended one. What do you wish you had been cast for in the past? And what do you hope you’ll be cast for in the future? I know, maybe, I do not know how much acting you’re doing at this moment or how much you’re planning to continue doing, but I love this question and I would love to hear your response.


Billingslea:  I am heartbroken that Mercutio got by me. I just love that play. And I had never been in Romeo and Juliet you know. Like five or six Mid Summers and five times played Othello in one time was Othello but after you know, three, Coriolanus, who gets three Coriolanus? And, and No Romeo and Juliet, or Comedy of Errors or Shrew. It would be awesome to play Petrucio, but I’m getting a little long in the tooth to play that guy. But then again, there are some fabulous, fabulous, fabulous actors. You know, Safiya Frederick would make an amazing Kate. And, and for somebody who’s that dynamic, and has that kind of size, it would be cool to play opposite her. Though, that’s another bias that we have that if the woman is tall, you need a tall man. And it’s a bias that I have benefited from. But, but you know, my father was five, eight, my mother was six foot so it’s not a rule in nature. So Mercutio and Patrucio, those would be fabulous. Edmund in Lear is fun except there again we start going into biases. The black Edmund as the bastard, that Lear had sex with a black woman and out side of, sorry that Gloucester had sex with a black woman outside of his marriage, and so Edward is his white legitimate son, and Edmund is his black illegitimate son — those issues can often come up and are particularly dubious when you only have one black person in the play. It’s like, Oh, so you’re one black person has to be a villain, really? Because there’s only one black person who does Shakespeare, really? That kind of thing. So you want balance there. But those two primarily. I also really, really, really wanted Palamon in Two Noble Kinsmen. It’s hardly ever done. And the brothers who are so close and so alike in dignity, who become starcrossed when they see a woman that they both fall for is just too hysterical, too fun. And the play is so freakin tragic that the female who is most moving, and most Ophelia like, but never named in the play, the jailer’s daughter has no name. What does that say about status and gender? It’s a, that’s a great role. And then so there’s that. And then Aaron in Titus Andronicus because he is such a bad bad boy. Yeah, he makes Iago look like a choirboy. His glee at doing evil is just astounding: 

“Oft have I digged up dead men from their graves and set them on their dear friends’ doorsteps even when their sorrow almost was forgot and on their skins as on the bark of trees have with my knife carved in Roman letters, Let not your sorrow die though I am dead.”

Dang! That dude is messed up. Yeah, that dude is messed up. So,there are some roles.


Merry:  Well, thank you. That was a very comprehensive answer. And actually, I had a question I was gonna ask close to the end, but you’ve been touching on it with your comments about the challenges playing Edmund in King Lear. I was wondering if there are any Shakespeare plays or plays generally that you believe pose major structural problems or issues for black performers and or black theatre makers?


Billingslea:  Because the answer is yes. Yes. When I played Kent, in King Lear at Cal shakes, well, two things with Kent. One, Kent is in the court, is banished and comes back in disguise. And I said, you know, we can do this. But first off, have we cast anybody else black in this play? Because if I’m the only black guy in the play, then that’s something else too. And they’re like no there’s one other person who was black and there were some Asian performers. Okay. And, and how is it that Lear isn’t going to know it’s me with a clean shave? So Amanda Dinert and I talked about that. And we kept playing with different dialects and stuff. And then said well, what if he comes back as someone who’s trans and thinks, Kent would never, that’s not my soldier, Kent would never do that. So not only did we shave, but I let my hair grow out enough to wear in the top of the show, I could press it down with a durag, and then they had a hat like a baseball hat. So if you take the baseball cap, and then if you cut right here in the middle out, they would put the hat on top of my head, pick my hair out till it was a mohawk and then they would spray it pink. So then they take the hat off and I had this straight up little pink Mohawk that was working and then nails and a lot of makeup, skirt and just a very different looking top to come in as somebody who is very different. And then with more of a Cockney, Sid Vicious sort of dialect to play with.

But when Kent was, when Regean or Goneril locks up Kent, outside of the castle, and put him in the stocks — that’s when the letters came to the theater. 

“You had a black man in chains!” And it’s, it’s somebody saying this image is problematic, this image is bothersome. And, I think that’s all right. And if we felt like it was alright. It was not something that we hadn’t ever thought about, but it was something that I think was a bit fueled for, and particularly for Lear, Lear sees it and goes a little nuts. And so I think that that actually works. It is a moment in which the audience comes out of the story. But particularly sometimes with outdoor theater where, you know, in the backdrop, you can hear a cow mooing or coyote going, which literally happens at Cal shakes. And Lord when the coyotes get ahold of a turkey, it’s just, you can hear discovery channel happening behind you. So a question about the play pulling you out a little bit is not necessarily a bad thing. And while he was just coming into the theater at that point, Eric Ting, the director, made much use of that disrupting of the story with contemporary thoughts being added to the classical story for that Othello that was his intent. 


Merry:  Yes, absolutely. I mean, thank you for the beautiful transition. I exactly wanted to ask about that. Obviously, I’ve touched a bit in your time together, the fact that you played at Cal Shakes as Othello in Eric Ting’s production of Othello. And I would love your perspective on the play. If you could speak to, you know, I know you’ve played off I think five times, if I have that number…


Billingslea:  Correct, that was number five.


Merry:  Wow, that is quite a few. And I would love to hear your experience playing Othello. And then I have a few more questions specifically about what you were just mentioning, that kind of talkback structure, both after the play and the way Eric Ting incorporated it.


Billingslea:   And I actually think that, and I’m not sure that he would disagree, but he might, that because Eric knew we’re going to perform the play and we had set up this tour of the play, to go to a woman’s federal prison, to a mosque, to a senior citizens home in a residential unit in Oakland, as well as a high school too, that I think he was looking for a way that we could do the play and the transition not be too abrupt for the actors as they move from the stage to the to go on the road. And, so we have. I’ll actually try to send you a series of photos that might help with this. If you decide to put them in while I’m just jabbering. We had a series, a circle of chairs, which makes blocking very tough. And so we had the chairs numbered. So my script says: you know the chair three, chair two, chair seven, Chair six, stand at five, sit at six on this line. It was just really, really wacky. And you didn’t leave the stage. So Iago is saying, “I hate the moor” and you’re sitting there watching him say these things. It was really, really interesting. Into rehearsal he [Eric Ting] one day brings about, like, you go into the hotel register, and you ding and there’s a couple of them on stage. And the bell dings. I think first, when we go out of the court, and we head on the ships to Cyprus and, “Look to her Moor” no Othello tells Desdemona that they have just a few moments together and they have to obey the time.

So “we must obey the time” and then an actor steps downstage left to a microphone and says, “Cyprus is a place….” while we shift, light poles and actors are grabbing a light–big huge actual studio for filming light on a great big huge tripod and rolling it onto another place on stage with a big cable behind it and stuff and moving things in different places and actors are putting on a coat or whatever, and someone’s putting the little sailor hat and “what the coast, can you discern at sea” and all those sorts of things. So that it feels very rehearsal hall. And it is a distinct interruption of Shakespeare’s text with some qualifying information, some footnote that you stop the play with. And then it happens again, and again and again and ding and stop and ding and stop throughout for different things. And so these things continue to happen. As well as upstage Center, there is a huge huge screen rear projection so that you can see different things. And so when Othello is being gulled, and Iago talks to Casio, about Bianca, but Othello can’t hear and Othello is watching them physically and think they’re talking about Desdemona and thinking that they’re referring to her with these lewd suggestions and this physicality that is untoward. Othello is down center, way down center. Rodrigo is holding a video camera right in his face. And the image of Othello is being shown on the screen behind Iago and Cassio who are upstage center-ish, but behind them all you see is my mug looking ferocious. And “Do you laugh villain, do you laugh” and all sorts of things while that is happening. And so it seems to justify the camera in that moment. Which is a brilliant choice, because what happens next is the bed comes in. And I’ve been in productions where the bed came in the audience clap. Oh, here comes the bed. Oh, it’s so beautiful. You know, it’s the set. it’s the stage craft. It’s where Desdemona is going to get killed and we’re just…. Yeah, yeah. 

So, Emelia and Desdemona are playing their scene there currently with Rodrigo, and Iago doing their scene where they’re going to ambush Cassio. What is helpful for the court and their production would be to know that those two scenes feel almost expository in their pace, they feel to be a little bit of a lull. And the moments of excitement in the bedroom scene is Desdemona saying “what was that? it was the wind” or whatever and “I’m fearful” or whatever. And actually, from a previous production, Jason Manadacus, I Othello with him at Rand Theatre Company in 2012. He’s the first person who ever said, “that’s a Shakespearean device as known to an Elizabethan as a close up is or dolly shot is for us”. That if they hear that they know in the next scene, someone’s going to be doing something that will tell them what that noise was. That noise outside their window is something that’s going to be revealed later. So, he was the first, Jason Minadacus, was the first that I knew to blend the two scenes together. So that and some of this language from Desdemona, Emilia, and then some language from Iago Rodrigo back to Desdemona, Emilia, and really did a mash up that makes both scenes pop, and then you move to “it is the cause”, and that that will coming in with the candle. So that really helped with some pacing and some suspense of really being able to keep the rubber band tight. And in some other productions, those moments have lost some tension. Because, as an audience, we are no longer in a position of wondering what’s going to happen to Desdemona we’ve, we know the story. So there’s that. And then, after, well, the death when the bed comes in, the camera is set up and spiked so that the camera is focusing not on Othello, not on Desdemona, but focused on the corner of the bed on, like, you want to see a fitted sheet? what the, what is that about? And that’s what’s big on the backstage screen is this corner of the bed. And then Othello kills Desdemona. And when she’s murdered, she starts fighting. And then he goes to strangle her. And when he goes to strangle her, I think without a ding, there is a medical description of what it is to be suffocated. And you hear this description while you watch her struggle. And there were so many people who said that was it for them, they thought they were going to lose it. And the shit got real there. 

And in a way, that’s really remarkable. We do this work so that the audience will have, technically, psychologically, will have a sympathetic reaction for the characters. And they will feel with them, for them, as they watch them go through what they do. And it’s in that regard, that it’s art, that if you do it, right, we are organ donors who’ve put our hearts on the line so that your heart will feel. So I hope that gets all of your questions.


Merry:  More than all and then more than many that I could have asked. And I guess, so many, but I guess my question is, if the audience is so heavily invoked, and so essential to the experience of this production, I was wondering what it felt like to be at such a variety of audiences. So I guess for me, I do some personal work with incarcerated individuals and so the women’s prison just came out, I’m thinking, this must have changed how the plate felt, or how it was, how it was performed, experienced and how it was received. 


Billingslea:  So who’s the hero that gets the warmest applause when they speak in this play when you do it in a women’s prison?


Merry:  I don’t know. 


Billingslea: Bianca. 


Merry: Yes, that makes sense. That makes all the sense. 


Billingslea:  Yes. And we did the same thing. And she said some lines and then all of a sudden they’re like, “Yes”! And you’re like, that makes sense. Absolutely. Your ability to see yourself on stage is crucial for theatre. And that’s why you need that variety of diverse voices that make the richness of our society come alive on the stage, or else the stage doesn’t reflect who we are. And that’s the end both at the first and now.


Merry: Well, I will end this here because I have taken up much more of your time than I had originally asked for. So thank you again. I really appreciated all your answers and your time.

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