Black Shakespeare(ans) Database

Caleen Sinnette Jennings

Artist Profile by Abby Henkin


Caleen Sinnette Jennings is Professor of Theatre Emerita at American University as well as a playwright, director, and actor. She joined the faculty in 1989, directed for the main stage and taught thirteen different courses in the theatre and general education programs. In 2003 she received American University’s Scholar-Teacher of the Year Award. In 2016 she became the founding Chair of the President’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion, and in 2018 she received the University’s inaugural Award for Excellence in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. During her tenure at A.U. she was Director of the Theatre/Musical Theatre Program and Chair of the Department of Performing Arts. She has been a faculty member of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Teaching Shakespeare Institute since 1994. 

From 2020-2021, she served as Senior Consultant to the Director of the Folger Shakespeare Library. Dramatic Publishing Company has published 8 of her plays: Elsewhere in Elsinore: The Unseen Women of Hamlet,  Inns & Outs, Playing Juliet/Casting Othello, Free Like Br’er Rabbit, Sunday Dinner, Chem Mystery, A Lunch Line, and Same But Different. Her play, Uncovered is published in the Lane/Shengold Anthology, Shorter, Faster, Funnier and her play, Classyass is published in five anthologies. Jennings’ play, Darius & Twig was produced at the Kennedy Center Family Theatre and did a national tour in 2017. Her Queens Girl trilogy plays have received both live and virtual productions at Theatre J, Mosaic Theatre, Everyman Theatre, Clackamas Repertory Theatre, Hangar Theatre and Aurora Fox Theatre. She received a $10,000 grant from Kennedy Center’s Fund for New American Plays and the Heideman Award from the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville. She is a five-time Helen Hayes Award nominee, and founding member of The Welders, a D.C. based playwrights’ collaborative.

Contact Information

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Full Interview Transcript


Henkin: Alright, so yeah, thank you again, Caleen Sinnette Jennings for taking this time to speak to me. The first thing I wanted to talk to you about was if you could speak to some of your early experiences with Shakespeare. When did you first encounter him? Do you remember some of those reactions? I think you said in interviews that Hamlet had initially turned you off, right?

Jennings: Well, I was introduced to Shakespeare, in Nigeria, my family took us all to Nigeria to live in 1965. And I  attended an international school, and the headmaster was British, but we had teachers from all over the world and so forth. But the school had a tradition as many British schools do of a Shakespeare annually. So I saw it and he was so awesome, because he picked plays that usually high schools avoid, like Merchant of Venice. What was the other? The other one that he did, but he did not only unusual Shakespeare, but he did Brecht, you know, he did Chalk Circle at an international High School in Nigeria in 1965. So, way ahead of his time, and I had him for English. And he had picked, this is, I was in the equivalent of 10th grade. And he picked As You Like It, and we got, you know, we handed out the books, and he had us read it aloud, which was awesome. What was interesting was, I had never read Shakespeare, much less read it aloud. All my Nigerian colleagues had, of course, because Nigeria was only recently independent. So they had read and seen and performed Shakespeare in the second, third, fourth, fifth grade. And, of course, my English colleagues, you know, my British classmates had, so I was really sort of the lone person who had never sort of experienced Shakespeare. But the most important thing to me was, he expected us to understand it. So we did. So I didn’t have any of the “Oh my God, it shakes me” and everything. He handed it out, like, you know, everybody cool with this, and everybody was cool with it. So I had to act cool with it. And because he had us reading it aloud, I came to understand it, and I got to play Rosalind, and my big crush was Orlando, and you know, it couldn’t have been better.

So that was my first experience, which was a wonderfully positive experience. Then unfortunately, I got to college and had a miserable experience. I had a very boring pedantic Shakespeare teacher, who, you know, he literally droned on and on and on like this, we never read anything aloud. And we read Othello and that was the play that, both Othello and Hamlet turned me off, but Othello really turned me off. I was embarrassed by this character here. I am the only Black person in this very white class at Bennington. And I was embarrassed by him and his, what I felt was his stupidity and naiveté and his, you know, he must have been stupid and naive for Iago to have tricked him. And, you know, this is the 1960s also, Black Power. And here he’s pining after this white woman, and he and I weren’t making it at all. And my next encounter, well actually, the University of Ibadan in Nigeria did a production of Othello so it was so interesting to be on a university campus and have the students do this production. And in Nigeria, when you go to see a play, or a movie or whatever, it’s part of the culture that you respond. So people were calling out and everything during the play and when Othello is saying, you know, “one more kiss,” they say, “Ah, kiss her again. You’re going to kill her, kiss her again.” So it was a rousing sort of semi-comic, so that was interesting and confusing and fun. 

Then, really my next, because we didn’t do any Shakespeare at Bennington, again, this is the late 60s, early 70s. And everybody’s doing European experimental plays. I did a lot of Grotowski. I did a lot of obscure European nihilists, but I didn’t do any Shakespeare. Then I got to the Folger. I’ve been working at the Folger sort of forever. And during the OJ Simpson trial, that particular institute, one of the plays we had on the docket to read was Othello and people kept talking about the OJ Simpson trial, likening it to Othello which made me insane mainly because Desdemona was not a frickin’ cocktail waitress. Desdemona was not only daughter of the Duke but she was so, you know, when Othello talks about, you know, she’s my partner and my companion, I envisioned her as a co-strategist, a woman ready to go to war, so that pissed me off. And that’s one of the reasons I wrote Playing Juliet/Casting Othello quite frankly, to wrestle with the plays. Whenever I remake a play, it’s because I’m wrestling with it, I’m trying to figure out where I fit, where are the openings where I can examine some of the problems and so forth. 

So I would say it’s through that, that I finally got courage. My last Shakespeare at AU was Othello and Abby, that play beat me up, I was having PTSD for months after I directed that. It is such a brutal play on so many levels. I cast two Iagos that work simultaneously, one male, one female. One reason being, I believe the Iago has a feminine and a masculine side, but also, because my play had a semi-contemporary setting. And I said, we don’t understand the power of words anymore. We’re such a visual culture. And so, to have two Iagos, pounding away–one literally on each shoulder, I thought was a much more effective way of showing how this man who is smart and strong and principled just gets overwhelmed by these forces. One night I come into rehearsal. And my female Iago is over in the corner crying. And I went over to her, “I said, Emma, what’s the matter?” She says, “Caleen, this play is so brutal.” I did more processing with the actors on this particular show than ever before. And I’m one for, you know, it’s educational theater. So we need to know what we’re about. But we did a lot of trust exercises, a lot of intimacy coaching, a lot of talking about it. It is so brutal on so many levels and race is just a small part of it. So I’m glad I went through the various stages of shame, embarrassment, anger. And finally, supplication, I realized as we were closing the show, I said, “I will never refer to myself as a Shakespeare scholar. I’m a Shakespeare student.”

Henkin: This is probably related to what you’ve been talking about, but I know you’ve acted, you’ve directed, you’ve adapted, you’ve talked about using writing to grapple with these plays. Are there differences in how you feel like you respond to Shakespeare in each of these modes? Or how you learn about him in each of these kinds of modes of working with him?

Jennings: Well, all three modes continue to build my reverence, humility, and awe of this person  as a playwright, as a student of psychology and sociology, and falconry and everything else you could name. How can one person chronicle human existence in a way that has such depth and such power? How can one playwright, I mean, every single time I do the “rude mechanicals” scene, whether it’s senior citizens or eight-year-olds, it’s a sure fire knock down, drag out comic event. It’s on the page, it’s baked into the text, how many playwrights are able to do that? So it just increases my, as I said, humility. So when people say, “Oh, you’re Shakespeare scholar”–Ellen MacKay is a Shakespeare scholar. I’m a Shakespeare student. But I would say the purview is different. So as an actor, getting my body and my voice and my imagination and my full instrument up to speed, so that I can embody that text. I don’t even have to worry about emotions. Because if I do all that, the text takes you, as I tell people, it’s like riding in a Mercedes. You know, if you do all your work, the text will take you. 

As a writer, the discoveries that you make in terms of how the script, the text is structured, and the wonderful sense of how you can open doors and find windows into the text almost at any point, you know. So it’s no surprise that people continue to adapt this and continue to find their own stories inside the text because it’s limitless, you know, and it’s porous. And that’s in terms of the writing. And then in terms of the directing, which for me has always been the hardest thing, because for me, you’re responsible for the most. You are responsible for everything. And to be responsible for realizing a Shakespeare text, from everything to your actors’ vocal health, to sightlines, to understanding the text, to making sure that it’s action driven, to making sure that your actors are articulating enough for your audiences to understand them. To me, it’s overwhelming. It’s overwhelming. So each experience is different. I feel so lucky that each has complimented the other in my life, I’ve been able to do all of those. 

And I feel unbelievably blessed to have been in a situation to teach Shakespeare because in teaching Shakespeare, I have been a continual student, and helping my students discover the joy of performing Shakespeare is a high unlike any I’ve ever, not anything I’ve ever known. My Shakespeare finals were kind of legend because the text forced people to go places they’d  never been before. And it was unbelievable. I had two of my shyest students, a white male, Black female, do the Anne and Richard the Third casket scene where he woos her over the casket. And they started terrified. Their final performance was so sexy, and so bold. And the last thing Anne did was plant a great big fat kiss on Richard’s mouth. Everybody went “Ahh!” So when you open the door for students, they will take it to places you can’t even imagine because the text is that vibrant and compelling. And again, this is a man who writes language that becomes an engine. If you give yourself to that language, what it will do to you is just amazing. So to have been able to guide people to that has been just a joy. 

Henkin: Yeah, I mean, Playing Juliet/Casting Othello, I think speaks to so many of these issues. I know you said that Casting Othello in particular was kind of born from some of your own experiences grappling with Othello. Could you speak to any kind of specific moments or instances that may have been informed that?

Jennings: Playing Juliet came from an instance where a Black female playwright friend of mine asked a white male director to direct her play. And I knew both of them. They were both friends. And I got caught up in the problem that occurred. My Black female friend who wrote the play had a very strong protagonist, heroine, who was drop dead gorgeous, smart, powerful, etc. And my white colleague, who was the director, cast a dark-skinned, heavyset woman in that role. And the playwright was incensed and kept telling me, “She’s not a beauty, she doesn’t look like I wrote” and so forth. The white director was telling me, “You know, the playwright’s so upset, but I think my actor is beautiful and gorgeous,” and so forth. So I’m hearing them each in an ear, you know. And the white director stuck to his guns and the Black female playwright was very unhappy with the production. It was an unhappy circumstance. And worst of all, the protagonist, the heroine, knew or got a sense that the playwright was unhappy with her doing the role and it just hurt on so many levels. So this idea of what is beauty? This idea of when you have a play that speaks about beauty, beauty, beauty, beauty, what does it mean for a woman of color to step into that role? And what does it mean when you bump into all that light dark language that’s in the play? 

So I wanted to sort of challenge that and sort of get that out in the open and get that colorism dynamic out in the open. And I actually had a rather aggressive audience member one night after the play at the Folger corner me and say, “You know, light-skinned women are never loyal, and light-skinned…” and she’s talking to me. Oh, she was like, right out of my play. And then she started emailing me and stuff. It was almost like stalker stuff. But yeah, this colorism thing is so painful and so alive. And what’s interesting is, I’ve had more high schools do this play then professional productions. And in every instance, I’ve attended about three, many of them were local. And in every instance, the students said, “Oh, yes, this goes on all the time,” Black dark-skinned girls versus light-skinned girls, and so it’s not going away. So that’s what happened with that. But it was a one act, and I had my little theatre company and so then, that particular year, I was at the Folger and we studied Othello during the OJ Simpson trial. And so I figured, you know, now that I already had my theatre company, I’d put them together in those two one acts.

Henkin: That makes a lot of sense. You mentioned that crazy woman who approached you. What were audience reactions like more generally? I assume they were more positive overall, but I’m curious how people responded. 

Jennings: People really loved the play. High school students really love the play, which oh, God, I was in seventh heaven. Here’s a wonderful story I’ll tell you about that first production. You’ve seen her picture already. You’ve seen the picture of Desdemona, and Susan Lynskey. So Susan was very new to Washington when she was cast in that play. She went on to do a lot of work in DC. But anyway, she was quite new to Washington. And the way Lisa Middleton directed it, they use the whole house. So when Jimmy enters, he walked down the center aisle. Have you ever been to the Folger?

Henkin: I haven’t.

Jennings: Okay, they have a center aisle that’s very dramatic. It slopes down towards the stage and then you walk up onto the stage. So the director had Jimmy in his uniform with his little name Jimmy on it and so forth, looking sort of scruffy, hangout and then walk down the stage. Susan’s dad had never seen her perform. He was a working class guy, and he was very ambivalent about her role in the theater. So she invited him to see her in this play. The night he was there, he was sitting on the aisle. And when Jimmy walked down the aisle, he tapped him. He said, “No, no, no, you can’t come in there doing your show here.” He thought he was a handyman. Afterwards, she said to him. “What did you like about the show? Who did you like?” He loved Jimmy. Now Susan confessed to me,  she said, “My dad is a racist. My dad doesn’t have any Black friends. And he said some things that have made me cringe. But to have him identify most with Jimmy meant so much to me tonight.” You know, it was just pretty amazing.

Henkin: That’s really powerful. I mean, it sounds like they were maybe coming from similar perspectives, but to be able to cross that boundary, that’s amazing. 

Jennings: Misfits, misfits because I’m sure Susan’s dad was worried about not understanding the language and being made to feel stupid, just like Jimmy.

Henkin: Right. Wow, that’s so powerful that you were able to capture that. Wow. So I guess we can talk a little more about Jimmy. I mean, he’s stepping into this role of Othello, first time he’s acting. And as I said, we have been watching Keith Hamilton Cobb’s American Moor as part of our class. And he really talks about the pressure that he felt as a Black actor, this kind of assumption everyone had that he was going that he had played or he would play Othello. And so, I’m curious kind of how you came to have this be Jimmy’s very first acting role. And then if you have thoughts more broadly about the kinds of expectations that we as a culture, I guess white culture in particular, put on Black actors, either with regard Othello or more generally.

Jennings: Well, I wanted to accomplish two things and one of the critics, if you can find find Bob Mondelo, M-O-N-D-E-L-O, he said, one of the joys of my play was the fact that you find yourself cheering for this guy who’s never acted before, who’s saying Othello, who’s speaking Shakespeare for the first time, when all along, you know that this is a Shakespeare trained actor who has studied his craft and who knows exactly what he’s doing. So I love that suspension of disbelief, because that’s what theatre is. I love the obviously the meta-theatrical aspect of this, people love seeing backstage and what goes on. But I also wanted to make a point. Shakespeare is not solely the province of educated people. It’s not solely the province of the British, it’s not solely the province of people who are Folger subscribers, it belongs to everyone. And if you allow people to just speak the text, without correcting pronunciation, they’ll discover it and figure out what it means. And that’s exactly what Jimmy did. And Jimmy is my mouthpiece in a sense of erasing my guilt. Because I had hated Othello so much in high school and in my early years of college. Jimmy really speaks up for who the other side of this man is. He’s a guy with no experience in love, he’s an innocent, he’s a guy who has always been smart as hell on the battlefield, when he’s under pressure, but in social circumstances, he’s at a loss, so I wanted to honor him and defend him and present another side of him, a side that showed his humility. I wrestled for years with why the play, and people have talked about this, why it’s called Othello and not Iago. Othello is the piece that’s damaged, Othello is the person who comes to the play pure, and is soiled and tarnished, and perishes because of the forces that converge on him. So I see him as our best self. So those are sort of some of the things that I was exploring in terms of writing that.

Henkin: Going forward to some of your more recent work, as I said, we have watched Debra Ann Byrd’s Becoming Othello, which is a solo memoir show that she performs kind of detailing her experiences growing up, as well as becoming a classical theatre actress and taking on Othello herself. I know you’ve recently written this show Queens Girl that was just performed in February, right? That’s amazing. I understand Queens Girl to be a series of solo memoir plays. And so I’m curious to hear more about that. And also, if there are ways in which your work with Shakespeare has informed or trickled down into some of your kind of non-Shakespeare directly associated works.

Jennings: Well, I always say that my work with Shakespeare has taught me how to read. I’ve been able to work with some of the most fabulous scholars on the planet. And one of the things that particularly the scholars who are involved with the Teaching Shakespeare Institute, which is what I’m involved with, with the Folger has taught me not only close reading, but they’ve taught me to look at the structure of the language. And in that structure is the whole action of the character. So I’m always amused and in worst case scenarios annoyed with people who do these big concept plays, you know, let’s set it on a golf course. Or let’s set Midsummer Night’s Dream in a bank office or let’s… You don’t need all those bells and whistles. It can be really a bare stage. He forces you to go to the very limits of your imagination, to go to the very limits of expression. I think he forces you to be bold. So I wrote my first one woman semi-autobiographical play, Queens Girl in the World, on a dare. A friend told me, “You should write your biography, you should write…” but I said, “No, no, first of all, nobody’s interested. And second of all, I don’t write that way.” I got a grant to go to a writer’s retreat, and I said set out to show him I couldn’t do it. That’s how that play got written. I wrote the first one, and discovered, and again, I think this is the Shakespeare influence, just as Touchstone in As You Like It walks out onto the stage and says, “Now we are in the forest of Arden,” and the whole audience says, “Yep, I’m on board. I’m right there with you. I even see trees.” You learn how a person’s language, a person’s utterance becomes reality on the stage. So when my character says, “I got my skate key and I can smell the metal in my hand, and I…” people go there with her. I had so many people say to me, when she was playing multiple characters, “It’s like I saw three characters on the stage, but only one actor.” Do you know? Shakespeare reminds you that the mind is very elastic. And you can trick folks. It’s conjuring. It’s magical. So I think I had Shakespeare under my wings. And sort of in my bones, as I was writing this contemporary piece, and it gave me a certain measure of comfort in terms of using language to create certain things on stage.

Henkin: So I know you’ve also done academic work comparing Shakespeare and other Black theatre artists. I know you did a workshop on Hamlet and King Hedley in 2006, that I believe also became a paper. And so I think in that paper, you compare the two plays thoroughly. But you also note that Wilson was not especially familiar with Shakespeare, but yet, there’s still kind of some of these impulses that get shared. So I was wondering if you could speak to some of these broader impulses that you see in your own and in other Black theatre artists’ work that were either inspired by Shakespeare or kind of comparable, kind of picking up similar threads to him in notable ways?

Jennings: Well, because what I referred to before in terms of Shakespeare’s uncanny ability to put a range of human experiences onstage in such a visceral way, that it makes sense to me that great playwrights who follow him are related, just as he was related to the other playwrights of his day and the playwrights who inspired him. As the great Kristin Linklater said, “You have to remember that language is only the code we use to describe our human experiences.” So when we’re babies, we go “Eh. Eh. Eh” until we learn to say, “I want that.” Do you know? So the language of Wilson, because he also uses heightened language and big big concepts is I find as compelling, as driving, as complex as Shakespeare, but in a different cultural sense. Now, again, Wilson comes out of an oral culture, African American culture is oral. So writing things down came far second, third, we talked, and talk was part of a tremendous part of our cultural life and ritual. And how you spoke, not only reflected you, but your family and your ancestors in the same way. And I remind my students that the relationship between Shakespeare and Wilson and the earliest really good hip hop rappers is that idea of what the power of language is and its ability to express the whole cultural impulse. When I used to teach Shakespeare at AU, I started with using pages from Jay-Z’s book Decoded, because I wanted the students to see how one of the things that Jay-Z does is he decodes all of his hit songs. So he tells you, “Why did I say 99 problems and a bitch ain’t one,” and all that kind of stuff. So my students are like, “I can’t believe you’re using Jay-Z in a Shakespeare class.” I said, “Because it’s the same thing.” It’s decoding human experience. Now in terms of Wilson, because he was a Black nationalist, because he was a Pan-Africanist, because he came out of the whole Black Power movement, and he came out of a tradition of Black poetry in the 60s and 70s that is fiercely centered in Black culture, to say, “I’m Shakespeare inspired,” or that would be in an anathema to him or any of the poets of that generation. 

Yet, Wilson lived in the ether lived in the same environment, so he had to encounter Shakespeare, whether willingly or not, and those impulses that are in Hamlet, are in Hedley: that odd mother-son relationship, the sort of usurper Claudius and I’ve forgotten his name anyway, who comes in, the fragile love interest, Ophelia and what’s her name, Tanya, the parallels are too strong there. And of course witchcraft in both of those cultures. So whether you like it or not, I think if you are growing up in a Western culture, or growing up in a culture that was colonized by the British, on some level that seeps into your bones, and what I’m going to say to these young Tisch students is, “This is your birthright. This is your birthright and people of color all over the world have claimed this and built their foundation on this.” So that’s the first thing. The second thing is, once you decode Shakespeare, any contemporary text is a piece of cake. And actors who have done a lot of August Wilson will tell you, like Shakespeare, there’s a cadence and a rhythm to it. And a syntax such as it’s so tightly structured, that it’s legend among Wilson actors, that if you mess up a line, you have no choice but to go back to the top of the speech, you can’t improvise and find your way back. So there are so many delicious parallels. Both Shakespeare and Wilson were poets before they were playwrights.

Henkin: This has been an absolute delight. Thank you so much for sharing all of your insight and wisdom. Not all of it, just the tip of it.

Jennings: Well, you can tell I’m shy and I don’t like to talk. So I hope I’ve managed to really answer your questions in a productive way.

Henkin: It’s been really amazing. Thank you so much for all your openness and insight. Thank you.

Jennings: You’re welcome, Abby, take care 

Henkin: You as well. Thank you so much.

Jennings: Bye bye.

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