Black Shakespeare(ans) Database

Carl Cofield

Artist Profile by Kree Middleton


“Carl Cofield is the Associate Artistic Director of the Classical Theatre of Harlem, where he directed The BacchaeA Christmas Carol in HarlemAntigoneThe Tempest, and Macbeth

Other credits include Twelfth Night (Yale Rep); One Night in Miami (Rogue Machine Theater; Denver Center Theatre Company; Los Angeles NAACP Award, Best Director); A Raisin in the Sun (Two River Theater Company); Henry IV Part 2 (Oregon Shakespeare Festival); Disgraced (Denver Center); The Mountaintop (Cleveland Play House); and Dutchman (Classical Theatre of Harlem/National Black Theatre). He was associate director for The White Card by Claudia Rankine, directed by Diane Paulus (American Repertory Theater), and Camp David by Laurence Wright, directed by Molly Smith (Arena Stage); and he directed a reading of Camp David for President and First Lady Carter (The Carter Center). 

Acting credits include Manhattan Theater Club (Ruined), Berkeley Rep, Alliance Theatre, Arena Stage, The Shakespeare Theater, Intiman Theatre, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Shakespeare Santa Cruz, Milwaukee Rep, Alabama Shakespeare, McCarter Theatre, The Acting Company, The Studio Theatre, and many others. 

Carl teaches at New York University and The New School. Education: M.F.A., Columbia University.” ( on an upcoming production of King Lear.

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Full Interview Transcript


Middleton: How did you originally get interested in Shakespeare? Was your first encounter memorable? 

Cofield: Yeah, so I got introduced to it when I was in undergraduate school in theater of conservatory. My professor said we’re going to go into Shakespeare and the classics, and I was completely not interested in the idea. I remember vividly telling him,”Shakespeare had left me alone, so I’mma leave Shakespeare alone.” But much like, you know a lot of young people, sometimes you have an educator in your life who sees some promise in you, and sometimes you don’t see it in yourself. But they’re like no, you should continue to go and you know, explore this. He was like I could definitely see you playing Henry V. I could see you playing, you know, whatever. And so, I was like well, I don’t know if you say so. 

So, I started getting into it. And where I came from in my life, I started looking at it through a lens of saying like—oh, well this is like Public Enemy talking about an epic story, and they’re using wit, and they’re using different sounds to convey a message. So, I started looking at it through a lens of hip hop culture. When I was coming up, it was the golden age of hip hop. So I was like oh! so you can look at it like this! So it just gave me more freedom to look at this material that I was sort of afraid of. But that gave me access to it, to be able to play with it in different ways. So that was the genesis of where it started. 

Middleton: That reminds me in class we talked about James Baldwin and how he had an essay called, “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare,” so that makes me want to ask, where you are now after being fully experienced and in the world of theater, how do you see your engagement with Shakespeare now? How has it evolved?

Cofield: Well, it’s completely evolved. For one, as we alluded to a moment ago, just overcoming the fear of it, and really seeing it, I think for what it is. He’s writing about different times, of course, he’s writing about massive existential questions about like who we are. But here again, having that permission to look at a character like Falstaff, and say, that’s just like my uncle. The Boar’s Head Tavern is like the barbershop that I grew up in. You can be around different people. Prince Hal can come in there and get his hair cut, and there’s like a freedom there. So I think just equating it to something that I was familiar with it, and I think that’s what Shakespeare is built and able to hold, the flexibility and the nimbleness. When I was coming up in theatre school, they all was like, well Shakespeare, you can put Shakespeare anywhere. The themes will resonate. You can put it on the moon. I started exploring that, and said well if that’s the case, well let’s put it through a multicultural, black lens. *Disconnection* …and see if it holds. 

Middleton: And that makes me think, seeing it through this black lens, I want to pivot very briefly to Othello, just because we’ve been talking about it a lot in class about how sometimes playing Othello can cause trauma to black actors, and I just wanted to see where you position yourself in that discussion. Do you think it’s traumatic? Do you think there’s value in continuing to play such a racist and stereotypical character?

Cofield: I definitely think there’s value. I not one, you know I know we’re going through a moment right now where we want to cancel. I think it’s—we have to be careful. What I will say to that is, I’ve seen a lot of Othello’s directed through a white interpreter’s eyes. I think there’s something there if you’re a person of color and you’re directing Othello to really mind what themes that you want to resonate, and it can take the focus off Iago. Quite frankly, a lot of the times you see it, the Iago is the one that every one is so interested in, but Shakespeare did write it called Othello, from Othello’s point of view, from an African warrior king point of view, and sometimes I think that can get lost. There’s things, especially in this moment in time that perhaps don’t age well, misogyny, this thing of putting Desdemona at the top of the beauty chain, whatever that means to us. But I’m much more interested in perhaps doing a version where Iago and Othello are both black. ‘Cause then that takes race out of the conversation. 

Middleton: That leads me to my next question. I was going to ask would you ever direct or produce a production of Othello and what would you adapt?

Cofield: That would be one of them for sure. But then, I think the argument changes a little bit, and we start kicking the tires more because if it’s just about, oh he’s a black dude and I hate him, then the audience gets ahead of us and they’re like well wake me up when he strangles the white lady, you know. And I think it’s much more interesting than just that. 

Middleton: I know you said in your bio that you have acted. Would you ever act the role of Othello?

Cofield: Yeah, it would be a fantastic opportunity and a challenge. But here again, I just want to make sure my collaborators and I are on the same page, right. Who would be directing it? What are we saying with the piece? What themes interest you? Any question that I have when I start working with a new collaborator those questions would be at the forefront of the conversation. But definitely. If the opportunity came along and somebody wanted to cast me, I’d be like yeah! Let’s do it!

Middleton: That’s great. I feel like this conversation is kind of leading us to contemporary and just conversations about how Shakespeare is operating in the contemporary. So what do you think about—I know in class we’ve talked about maybe pausing certain productions or censoring certain Shakespeare plays. What do you think? What is your position on that?

Cofield: Yeah, I’m never in favor of censoring an artist’s work. I’m never in favor of that. Some age well, some don’t. But I think we have to—I never like to coddle people. I think just because you’re exposed to it you can glean important take aways. You can say, I don’t know, for example, the problem with Taming of the Shrew is xyz and you’re able to articulate it, I think that can enhance whatever work Kree [the interviewer] goes on to do later on. You can say, I think this is what Shakespeare was aiming at with this piece, and I want to avoid those pitfalls. I’m never in favor of censoring an artist because then that’s a very slippery slope.

Middleton: No, that definitely makes sense. And you’re actually producing, I don’t know if I can talk about this on camera, but you’re working with King Lear

Cofield: Yeah, I’m directing King Lear with St. Louis Shakespeare. We’re super excited. And here again, this goes to my idea of why we do Shakespeare in the 21st century. So I’ve casted Andre De Shields as King Lear, and André De Shields, a lot of people don’t know, but he’s like theatre royalty in the United States. If he were in London, he would be called Sir André De Shields. But my examination of it is what if we did Lear in an African country when France and Burgundy come to woo his daughter? That takes on another significance because a lot of countries come to Africa to mine their resources, to plunder their weather. So that takes on a different meaning in the 21st century. And here again, we’ve taken race and turned it on its head. What do I mean by that? We don’t just have one actor up there. We have the lead actor. ‘Cause a lot of times when you see a Shakespeare show with people of color in it, you know, they can be the Laertes, but they’re not the Hamlet. They may be the Juliet but then there’s also the Romeo who’s, you know, something different. I’m not interested in that type of conversation or that type of interrogation of the work. I’m talking, hopefully, getting a group of really smart people and creating a dramaturgy that is our own. We say what it is. The audience might say, “Oh they’re doing King Lear in Wakanda.” That’s cool if that’s what you take away from it, and I’m open to that. But then I think that starts a different conversation. 

Middleton: Do you see—have there been any challenges thus far with this imagining or any that you foresee challenging you with this production?  

Cofield: Noo. Here again, I think Lear is one of the toughest plays you can do. Hamlet definitely ranks up there. So those are challenges that you’re gonna encounter in any production. What makes Lear so mad? Is it just the pettiness that he didn’t feel love from his daughters? But I think when you get into a room with really talented actors, which I’m fortunate to do, you start drilling down on these questions, and then you really have to think. You really have to put some careful thought into the type of Lear you’re crafting and you want to share with the community. 

Middleton: So this is making me think of, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Keith Hamilton Cobb’s American Moor, probably, but we’ve talked about it in class of course, and we had the chance to interview him—or Professor Ndiaye—so we were talking about his automatic assignment to traditionally black roles, so I was just wondering, thinking of Black exclusion in theatre, particularly the realm of Shakespeare, is there any role that you would have liked to be cast as or any play that you would have liked to directed, and why? 

Cofield: Yeah, you know, American Moor, I had the great privilege of seeing two or three times. Keith’s a great actor and writer. And I think he brings a great point of view to Othello, right we were talking about that earlier, but it would be great to do Othello, whatever a traditional Othello is, and have that in response and do them in rep. So an audience could really be like yeah, what is happening here? So that’s first and foremost. I think the world of Keith and American Moor’s a fantastic piece. As far as what I would like to do, I’m drawn to sort of what they call the problem plays and some tricky ones. I have a Cymbeline that is in works at the public theatre here in New York. You know, I’m always interested in stuff like that. I’m definitely interested in Titus and some of these bigger and thornier pieces. *Mic muted* I had the great privilege of doing Twelfth Night here at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut. So, I’m pretty fortunate in that I get to you know, a lot of Shakespeare shows that I’m interested in, I get a chance to work on. 

Middleton: So, are there any roles that you just have to one day be? I don’t know if you still act or are just primarily directing, but I’m interested. 

Cofield: Yeahh, you know I can’t say. I mean, Hamlet of course is a challenge for anybody. That would be cool. I can’t really say that I’m chomping at the bits to do one.

Middleton: That’s fair. That’s fine. So I guess my next question would be how do you envision future theater engagement with Shakespeare or any changes you hope to see implemented within theater?

Cofield: Yeah, I think covid has taught us a lot, right? Covid has taught us a lot about what the possibility of theater can be and will be in the future. I would say I’m super excited for the next group of theater makers who—you know technology is here to stay, right, so is there a universe where we integrate technology and live performance? How are we gonna think about these roles and how to execute them? So, I would say that’s the thing I’m most interested in, and y’know TikTok being what it is now, is there a universe where that is in a Shakespeare show? And I think the thing about that is you just gotta be creative, and there’s so many creative people around its just putting that creative cap on with Shakespearean texts—if that’s something you’re interested in. Or you could do *disconnection* something like Dianne Paulis who is a broadway director, artistic director. She did The Donkey Show, a reimagining of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. She made it into a disco, and put it in a disco text. That’s super creative, and super like how you’re thinking about something. So, I would say that that’s—I’d be interested to see how people put their own flavor on it. 

Middleton: Oh, I didn’t hear about that, but that sounds really interesting. So, I guess I’m wondering now is there any advice or any thoughts you have for students, particularly black students or black individuals looking to engage with Shakespeare? Because I know I’m new to it, just anything you would offer for someone trying to get into it? 

Cofield: Well, I would just take a page out of my personal journey, and say it’s not as precious as we think it is. A lot of times it’s offered up as this is serious art. It’s to be revered and precious. And it’s not. It’s not. It can be just as playful as, at least in my experience, just as playful as a battle rap. You know going back and forth using wit, using puns. And just to allow yourself some freedom and grace around it. And it’s not precious. There are precious moments of it, and it’s quite beautiful, but it’s yours just as much as it is anybody else’s. In theatre training, a lot of times, we try and remove what makes you, you. I don’t know where you, for example, I grew up in Miami, and when I went to theater conservatory, they wanted to make my sound this mythical, mid-Atlantic anchorperson thing. But when we come to find out, when one really does the research, they said that Shakespearean actors, they sounded twangy like the Appalachians in the Carolina regions. So you’re like oh, so there’s the Laurence Olivier-Kenneth Branagh way, but there’s also like the way my uncle might say Falstaff and put a lil diphthongs on it and do all this and have fun with the instrument. So that is what I’d suggest to anybody who’s thinking about engaging with it. It’s yours just as much as it’s anybody else’s, and have fun. Do you. 

Middleton: No, that’s great. I’m going to keep that in mind moving forward. I guess my last question would be, overall, what would you say your experience working in theater with Shakespeare as a black theater professional has been like? 

Cofield: It’s opened up a tremendous amount of doors that I might not have had the opportunity to. My work with Shakespeare informs how I work with plays. It informs how I look at texts as a director. It’s given me experiences I will never, never forget, and I cherish them. I did not know that when I started out that my, you know, we talked about it earlier, but my first allergic reaction to Shakespeare, little did I know that Shakespeare and classical texts would provide a life for me that I didn’t really even imagine. And I’m thankful to—for about twenty years there in my life, I had opportunities every year to engage with classical texts, Shakespeare, Moliere, Johnson, whatever, and that was because of my introduction to Shakespeare. A longwinded way of saying, it really enhanced my opportunities. It really did. I got to work at theaters where that was part of it. You’re gonna be in the new Lynn Nottage play, but you’re also gonna do Orsino in Twelfth Night or you’re gonna do something in Troilus and Cressida or whatever it was. And that is a genuine reflection of my interaction with Shakespeare.

Middleton: I think that’s a solid note to end on. I’m gonna go ahead and stop the recording.

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