Black Shakespeare(ans) Database

Cassia Thompson

Artist Profile by Vivian Lei


At her most essential, Cassia would consider herself a lover words and of learning (her love for desserts are a close second). She has always been curious to find explanations for everything and everyone around her. She is continuously amazed at the power of words to shape, expand, connect to, and contextualize the world.

Cassia fell in love with theater as a teenager, earned a B.F.A. in Acting at Webster University.  Over the years, she has developed a strong command of language, text analysis skills, dialect skills, and hand-to-hand stage combat knowledge. She has showcased these skills and more at such incredible theatres as Syracuse Stage, American Players’ Theatre, and Alabama Shakespeare Festival to name a few.

Her experiences onstage and off have crystallized her purpose as an artist. She is an artist who is passionate about constructive complication! She diligently asks herself: what’s missing from this picture? What voices, experiences, or perspectives could deepen the world of this play or the culture of this institution? Through her work, Cassia seeks to challenge audiences and fellow creators to make room for the stories of those who usually get erased. To dare to use the power of storytelling complicate accepted definitions of race, culture, sexuality, and power.

Contact Information

Contact Cassia Thompson at

Full Interview Transcript


Lei: Good afternoon. This is Vivian Lei, and I’m a third-year student at the University of Chicago majoring in English language and literature. This interview is brought to you through Professor Ndiaye’s class Black Shakespeare. Today we have with us Cassia Thompson, who is an awesome classical actress from New York. Cassia graduated with a BFA in acting from Webster University. She has played roles in different Shakespeare plays, including Juliet from Romeo and Juliet, and Hermia from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She has also played supporting roles in several films and television productions. We’re thrilled to have you today with us. Cassia, could you please tell us a little bit more about yourself? 

Thompson: I’m glad to. First of all, I’m just excited to be a part of this, the whole idea of the database and the work that y’all are doing. I appreciate it a lot and wish it had existed before when I was coming up. Just really quickly, my name is pronounced Cassia, emphasis on the first [syllabus]. It’s a common thing people do. It happens all the time. It’s Cassia. I would say words have always been my first love, so I got to theater in the kind of securest way. I started off as a child, always being really drawn to the arts and reading and writing and creating. Just creating, drawing, all of that kind of stuff. And as I was getting older, there were random moments where I got drawn into doing plays. Just one-off things that I can’t explain why I wanted to do them. It’s just when the opportunity came up, I had to do them. My family was super supportive of it because I’m a naturally very shy and introverted person, and they liked anything that got me around people and talking to them because I wouldn’t do that. So my mom actually found a performing arts school where we were living at the time, and then it just… I started going there, and it snowballed there, and I’ve never lived back.

Lei: Okay, great. Thank you for sharing this. I’m sorry, I mispronounced your name. It’s pronounced as Cassia. Am I right? 

Thompson: Yeah. It’s fine. It happens all the time, so… 

Lei: Okay, great. So Cassia, could you please tell us a little bit more about the first Shakespearean play you’ve ever performed in? And could you please describe some of your acting decisions in that play, and what was that first experience like for you? 

Thompson: My first experience doing Shakespeare ever was my senior year of high school. I had just transferred to Booker T Washington high school in Dallas, Texas, and had to audition for As You Like It. I had never touched Shakespeare before, and actually at that point I tried reading some but I couldn’t get into it. I was very nervous about the audition because I never touched it, and I felt that I would never understand it. Like, I couldn’t, there’s no way I could get into it. It was just, it was too above me. I thought at the time, and I picked a Porcia monologue from Julius Caesar, and auditioned, and got a call back. All I remember from the call-back is being terrified, but just naturally reacting, just listening, and it works because then I got cast as Celia in the play. Celia doesn’t have a whole lot of lines, especially once they get into the forest of Arden, but I just remembered that entire experience was a crash course in Shakespeare. I remember our text coach would say, Cassia, your scansion is off here. I was like, what, what is that? So I was learning what Shakespeare was and how the words functioned. I was like, okay, well, while I’m learning the technique of this, I’m just going to listen. I’m just going to listen to the words and react however I would react if I were in the situation. 

Because I didn’t really touch Shakespeare again until three years later, for me, that was the seed of how I approach the work now in that I just come in and I start with, okay, what do I immediately understand? Because a lot of the time, and especially for marginalized people living in marginalized identities, it’s seen as this mystified thing that here’s Shakespeare up on this platform and you can’t touch it, or you have to be very careful or you’ll break Shakespeare. And that’s not true. It is very accessible. So I always like to start with, what do I know? What do I understand? What is familiar to me? And then [I] grow into the character, into the story from there.

Lei: That’s great. Thanks for sharing that. As a person of color whose first language isn’t English, I relate to the same feeling of [approaching Shakespeare]. I remember when I first started reading Shakespeare in Chinese, I felt, I knew he was a really important literary figure in the entire literary history. And to me, he was oftentimes this mystified [figure]. But I feel the more I got to learn more about him, the more I realized that the issues he’s trying to address are actually related to every one of us. Even though his characters are usually more like nobles and aristocrats, we can learn something else [as] normal people from them. Okay, so from your perspective, what is the most exciting thing about Shakespeare? What does his play allow you to explore and experiment as an actress, and I guess, on the contrary, what do you dislike about Shakespeare? Is there anything like that? 

Thompson: Sure. So starting with what I like, I love the athleticism that classical theater in general, but Shakespeare in particular, takes. I love that it takes the entire body, all of your lived experiences, all of your focus, all of your vocal technique. To do it in a way that is honoring the story and that touches people, and [it] touches people in a way where they can understand it because that’s the common thing [we all get to experience]. When I invite friends or people, “meet [and] to come see a show,” it’s the same thing, they’re intimidated. They’re like, “I’m not going to understand it. I don’t know.” The first thing I tell people is that if you ever go see a Shakespeare play or a movie or whatever adaptation, and you don’t understand what’s going on, it is the fault of the production. It is the actors’ and the directors’ fault that you don’t understand. I would love to use your example of reading Shakespeare in Chinese, because I would love to know what the translation differences are there. Because I love languages, and one of my hobbies as a little child was any songs that I really enjoyed, I would learn them in different languages just to see what the sounds were like, and the different images. It’s just the way things are translated is so culturally specific. So for me, it was okay, how can I get the same core expression of the songs in a different language? [It’s] the same thing with Shakespeare. I need to use all of my faculties, my body, everything I can, so that you understand what’s going on. You may not know what I’m saying exactly, but you understand exactly what’s happening. That happens anytime. You’re learning a new language, that’s what kids do all the time before they learn to speak. They’re understanding what’s going on in the world before they have a way to engage with it. So that’s what I love about it. The challenge of doing that, of living up to the size of the material.

What I don’t like about Shakespeare itself is I don’t… There’s no way to get around it, you know, he was a person. That’s why I want to demystify all that. He was a human being, and as a human being, he had his flaws in his writing, in his works, in his sonnets and everything. There are things that are of his time. I don’t like that excuse, but there is a lot of misogyny. There is racism. There is classicism. There are all these things that sometimes people try to explain away or excuse, and those things. There are some works of his that I don’t necessarily know if it’s useful to perform them anymore because they’re so steeped in the negative things. There’s other works that are interesting to look at and re-adapt. So I don’t love that. Probably the other thing I don’t like about Shakespeare actually has nothing to do with Shakespeare. It’s entirely how he is deified and mystified in our culture to a way that people feel like they’re not enough that they can’t access it wherever they are, when really he was a writer for the people, he loved writing for everyday people, as well as nobles. He wanted as many people to connect with his work as possible.

Lei: Great. So could you give us some examples of those Shakespearean plays that you think we should look into and re-adapt into a modern context, as you mentioned here?

Thompson: I think many of the comedies should stick around and really be mimed, so things like Midsummer and things like—of course all the comedies would go into my head—Comedy of Errors. I think much of his work stands the test of time. The ones like Taming of the Shrew is probably the biggest one that comes to mind that is so steeped in misogyny. It’s [also] so unclear because it’s framed as a play within a play. I find that if the play has more universal truth and space to it, like The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which actually is on that line for me, I think it has to be done with a lot of empathy and an open mind. It would be very interesting to explore for this time, but it was also kind of a practice run for some of his later comedies, and definitely for Romeo and Juliet. So it’s not as fully baked as it could be. That’s one for me that if it went away, that’s fine. If someone really wanted to put the work into it, I think there is some gold there to be adapted and to be brought into the modern world.

Lei: That’s really helpful. Thank you. So you shared with me your soliloquy performance of Juliet from Romeo and Juliet. When I was watching the video, I was extremely touched by the amount of emotions flowing through your rendition. I think that has a lot to do with the athleticism that is required from Shakespearean plays that you just talked about. I was really impressed by it. So could you please tell us a bit more about your use of constructive complication in developing this character of Juliet and also literally, just talk about any characters you’ve performed in previous Shakespeare productions. What are the hidden stories about her or other characters you’re trying to tell the audience through this performance? 

Thompson: Thank you. Very sweet compliment. I appreciate that. For me, Juliet is very, very close to my heart. The second time I got to play her in the full production, the adaptation that I was doing for you, was for ASF as part of their 2019 season. For me, when I say constructive complication in my work, I mean, we should be asking these questions of what have we accepted that’s true about the text, versus what is actually there, versus what do we have questions about. So for example, with Juliet, there is this inherited cultural idea of who she is. She’s young, she has a small body, she’s white, and she has long flowing hair. A lot of that I think is given to us by Olivia Hussey’s performance in the Zeffirelli film, which people misunderstand her performance. They get caught up on what she looked like and what she [sounded] like. She can’t help with her face and the tone of her voice, but she actually plays Juliet with a lot of intelligence and fire and grounding that I think people don’t engage with because of just how she looks.

So with Juliet, I wanted to push against that, and I wanted to get to the real human being because to me, Romeo and Juliet is not a love story. It’s a play about how an entire generation of adults fail their children. The young people are always looking for some support, some love, and some positivity. They mostly yearn to connect. Even in Tybalt’s case, he’s the fiery one, he’s in this in-between space of being a child and a man. But even in his way, he’s looking for connection, honor, love, and falling in line with the feud. 

So for Juliet, [she] is this incredibly connected, vibrant spirit. She is as rooted into the earth as she is connected to the heavens. That’s part of all of her descriptions when anyone talks about her. But the way she is so able to joke and play with her nurse and then be connected to the night sky, and to whatever she’s connected to was so interesting to me. And you don’t get that way by just being a soft little doll that I think people take her as. So for me, when I was reading Juliet, I’ve just noticed how funny she was, and how quick she was to call people out when they’re inconsistent or when they’re saying untrue things. With Romeo, when he starts to swear, she stops him. She’s like, no, don’t just say the things that people say when they’re trying to woo somebody, tell me something real. That’s how they connected in the party in the first place. He came up to her, and he was being himself, and they had a little tête-à-tête. She was like, “No, connect to me, say something real. Give me just… just be you. I want to find you.” I wanted to be that, and I wanted to find that where she [was] looking for the reality, where she [was] looking for truth, where she [was] looking for consistency. As she gets failed by the adults around her for being inconsistent or cowardly, or just straight up betraying her, the more it wears away at her. 

And the other complicated thing I think, I’ll probably move away from Juliet. I think part of her tragedy too, part of what breaks her is her insulated privileged existence. Because we know through adversity… How people react to adversity: [if] you’re either broken by it or strengthened by it depends on who you are and what you have around you and what kind of resources and support you have. It’s completely individual, but often tests create character. Juliet is so protected in her world as the only child as the young girl: she’s called the last hope. She is so protected and covered in condition while simultaneously living in a very violent world. I can only imagine in her 13 years, how many people [or how many deaths] she’s mourned. It’s like we’re living in now, hearing every single day about another shooting, or another act of violence. That’s part of her world as well, [which] she’s trying to be protected from.

So when she finally gets to engage with the world, without that filter and without anything between her: falling in love with someone and then immediately having to lose that person and her cousin, who she’s extremely close to. She doesn’t know how to handle that, of course, because she’s a child and she has no resources, and the people she goes to for support and guidance aren’t able to give that to her. So she is an open nerve by the end of the play. She’s an exposed nerve with no protection, no way out, no consideration. And part of that is I think what breaks her, versus maybe if she had been from the nurse’s social class and had been closer to the ground, not as isolated and protected, maybe she could have survived. Maybe she could have found a way out. Maybe other adults around her who aren’t so caught up in status and looks could have helped her find a real-world issue. But that’s the kind of complication [I’m aiming for]. These are not easy answers. These are not small questions. But it’s this kind of complication I think that helps us hook what Shakespeare wrote back in the 1500-1600s to who we are today. 

Lei: That’s a really articulate answer, and that definitely helped me gain a deeper understanding of Juliet as a character. So in our class Black Shakespeare, we focused on studying Shakespeare’s play of Othello. I think your description of Juliet actually reminds me of Desdemona, who’s also a white female character who is relatively young [compared to] Othello. I think part of Desdemona’s optimism also has something to do with her insulated privileges. When we were talking about Othello, we talked about the staggering lack of representation for people of color, specifically Black and other minority female characters from Shakespearean plays. For example, in Othello, we catch this really brief glimpse of Barbary, who used to be a servant in Desdemona’s household, but she’s not even a full character in the play. So as a Black female Shakespeare actress, how do you reconcile with this part of Shakespeare? You’ve mentioned that you have a lot of problems with Shakespeare, even though you think his play allows you to do a lot of things when it comes to the acting part. We know Shakespeare has really problematic takes: racist, misogynistic, or sexist takes, and a lot of [other] things. What are some of the techniques you’ve employed in the past to tell the full stories of the erased characters like Barbary? Have you ever played a character like that? 

Thompson: Specifically with Barbary, it’s such an interesting flash of a character, because I think I agree with you that Desdemona is this privileged white woman. She doesn’t have the understanding of her place in the world and the different power dynamics that exist in her relationship, or even the way that Othello is moving through the world. There’s a lot of misunderstanding there, the reality of their relationship in the situation. With Barbary, I think it is such a fascinating moment because Barbary’s story is such a classic, it’s a microcosm of how Black women are digested, particularly in American, in Western cultures today, where black women are simultaneously seen as strong and able to withstand anything. And we love them the more that they are able to take and keep going. Like Barbary, she is abandoned by her lover. Her lover goes mad and abandons her, and she sings the song and it tears her up. That moment, that was possibly the worst moment in this woman’s life, is romanticized by this white woman. She takes that story, and of course, Desdemona is going through a very tragic situation, but it’s not the same. [We see] Desdemona immediately as a victim and soft, but this woman Barbary is a maid and she just gets… 

We look at her and we feed off her pain, which is very true in most media. Often I found as an actor in my own experience, and in similar experiences with other friends and colleagues, that as Black [or] Brown women, depending on who you’re asking, we’re often asked to suffer on stage. We can be in comedies, but more often than not, a lot of our resumes and a lot of our experiences have more dramatic and even traumatic work. People wish to consume the suffering of Black women. I’m going to say in my case, speaking for myself, because that’s what we know, and that’s what’s palatable, and that’s what’s happening with Desdemona. Even going to [analyze] her name, Barbary, the Barbary horse, it’s just a stone’s throw away from barbarian. She is also simultaneously identified as a maid, as an animal, as a savage being, she doesn’t even get a full name. She doesn’t get a description. She’s just the barbarian mother’s mother’s maid who goes through this horrible thing. 

So I think in situations like that, or another character that I’ve played in the past in the Tempest, I’ve played Ariel before. It’s such an interesting distinction in the play because Prospero has Caliban and Ariel, and one is called a slave and talked down to and abused, and one is called a servant and treated fairly well. But servants, if there’s a difference they’re supposed to be paid, right? But for all intents and purposes, Ariel is also a slave. Ariel is in bondage, the favorite slave, but it’s also [a slave]. 

So in those cases, I just want to, what I like to do is I like to ask those questions and I like to remove some of the insulation we’ve created. The techniques I’ve tried to do with directors whom I’ve worked with is: what is the moment of suffering? Let’s not polish it, let’s first take the moment as it is, and it’s probably not going to be funny, and then figure out how it fits in this play, by, first of all, removing that later and looking at the wound as it is, and then constructing the story around that. I find that it’s both true and honors who we are represented as in the places where you can find actual people of color.

It’s the same in Shakespeare’s time. I mean, there’s not a lot of information you can find, but we know that England was incredibly diverse at this time. There was no anti-miscegenation law. There are records that you can find very few of wealthier Black families, or intermarriage between people from Asia, Southeast Asia and [the] English [people]. I mean like many times throughout the world, people were coexisting, but the story that we’ve been given is that’s not true. In fact, when I did The Winter’s Tale several years ago at a theater, a couple wrote a very angry letter to the theater expressing outrage that not only was I in the play as Perdita playing a princess, but there were other Black actors in the play, and they were outraged that we were in the play at all. Because to them, Black people didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s time, not in Shakespeare’s plays, in Elizabethan England. Black people weren’t there, period. That’s what they believed, and that’s what they wrote a letter to the theater about. 

So that’s how I just, I like to just show it what it is. This is what it is, and this is how we’re seen. Even if it’s not in the play for very long, just that brief moment of truth and gravity, I think is enough to complicate, and give nuance and different texture to the story, and leave people really asking questions and engaging with the material in the world in a way that they probably didn’t expect to on a night to the theater.

Lei: Thanks for being so honest and generous. Thank you. I’m sorry to hear about the experience.

Thompson: Honestly, it hurt at first and it would have been more hurtful except for brilliantly… This almost never happens, but my cast and I, we saw it and we were talking about it, and We were making jokes. But actually the couple who wrote that letter, it was a public letter and they did it through Facebook. So many people who had come to see the show and were supportive of the work just dogpiled and they, you know, it never got mean or at hand, but they were just basically saying, “That’s not right. That’s not okay. That’s not true. Why do you think that’s okay to say [that].” Basically holding them accountable for their racism and their boldness to the point where they deleted the original post and their Facebook pages were made private. So actually the memory is not as hurtful as I think it could have been because it was a great moment of bystanders actually stepping in and taking accountability. Most of them being white people say, that’s not okay, this is the play. And they did. It may exist, and have. What do you mean black people weren’t embedded yet? So, you know, it was painful, but then also had a very happy resolution as well.

Lei: I’m really glad that there was that resolution part of it. I’m still really sorry it happened, but it’s good to see that people are taking racist comments like that accountable and not letting it pass through. Okay. So, next question. As you have mentioned, when you’re talking about Shakespearean plays, you feel pretty attached to a lot of the comedies, and you’ve also played in a fair amount of comedies, like Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and The Tempest. You’ve also played Juliet from Romeo and Juliet, and from my perspective, Romeo and Juliet, even though that’s a Shakespearian tragedy, it also has some really comical moments. Like you’ve pointed out Juliet is really sharp, and she has really snarky comments from time to time that makes the play more comical than tragic. In your opinion, what are some of the most important messages Shakespeare’s comedies are trying to convey? And how are the messages from his comedies different from the messages he typically tries to convey through his tragedies? 

Thompson: Comedy and tragedy really essentially are the same thing. The only difference is time. So if you see a person say, you know, the common set-up: a person who’s not paying attention, they slip on a banana peel, they fall and they immediately get up and they’re like, oh, should that hurt? We would find that funny. But if someone slipped on a banana peel and stayed down, and was writhing in pain and then stood up finally and said, ouch, that hurt, we would feel so sad. So really it’s the same situation. It’s just one is truncated. The speed and the quick resolution allow us relief, which causes us to laugh, which makes it funny. Or we’re not given that relief until much, much, much later, much more has happened. So I think really many of the messages are the same. If there’s any difference. I think with the comedies, [Shakespeare] is more looking at trying to shrink the lens. So there are situations like mistaken identity, or you getting caught up in the woods with the wrong lover. He shrinks the scope, but uses that as a way to explore internal and interpersonal relationships. I think in his tragedies or his histories, he’s broadening the scope and making larger sweeping social, or cultural, or historic things. So they’re interchangeable because everything is connected, but I think that’s really the only difference I see.

Lei: Okay, great. Thank you. So one last question. If you were given the opportunity to play any Shakespearean character from any play, what role would you most like to play, or what role most excites you? And what are some of the adaptation decisions or acting decisions you would like to play around with that role to modernize it, or to reveal a different side of that character? 

Thompson: It’s a role that I would like to go back to because I’ve played this role once and I didn’t… It wasn’t satisfying, that production. I wasn’t given the artistic freedom to really explore. I’m not going to say too much about it, but I was able to play Ariel in The Tempest, the very first time I did it. It was part of the reason I have so much dissatisfaction over it years from years past. It was because when the casting process was happen[ing], I was taken aside and asked, hey, this role is described as a servant or slave role. Do you even want to be considered for this? Is this offensive to you? Would you like to be part of this? And if they were part of this, we will do our best to honor the fact that we have a Black woman playing a slave on stage and allowing you the freedom to express however that makes you feel.

Because I was given that talk, I felt better about taking on the role, and it started getting me excited about the arc of Ariel’s character. The Ariel that starts the play and the Ariel that leaves the play has to be very different. I think one of the most beautiful, poignant moments in the entire play is toward the end, when Ariel was describing the suffering of the court from what Prospero is doing. You know, we’re seeing a lot of the comedy and we’re seeing the beautiful show he’s putting on for his daughter and her lover, but he was also torturing people, and Ariel is asked to be an instrument of that. Ariel is not human. In my view, Ariel’s probable ideal state would not be even corporeal, just to be the wind and not be connected to humanity, and all of the heaviness and ugliness and inconsistencies that go with being human. I think over the course of the play, the more Ariel is involved in what Prospero wants to do as part of his revenge plot, [the more] it’s really weighing on Ariel. At first it starts off as fun, and then Ariel is asked to do worse and worse and worse and worse things.

I forget the exact line at this moment, but Ariel finally has a moment saying that, if I were human, it would break my heart to see these people and what you’re doing with these people. So Ariel has to have a moment of getting as close to humanity as they can stand, and it almost breaks them. That causes Prospero to have his turnaround. So I would love to get the chance to play this character who is simultaneously feeding themselves with the hope of freedom. Even very early on in the play, Ariel asks for their freedom and Prospero flat out says no, breaks the promise that they made. Ariel can do nothing about it. So I would love to play this character again and give it the nuance of what we do. When I say we I’m speaking as a woman, a cis-woman, a Black person, a person of color, a queer person, what we do to survive in these institutions that are asking us to be less ourselves, that are asking us to do things we normally wouldn’t want to do, that are asking us to code switch and to present in a way so as not to offend or bend out of shape. Because we know what happens to people who offend, we see Calibans, we know what happens to them. So we don’t want to do that, [but] it eats at the spirit in life.

What I would want to do is really be honest and show that because I think I see in many productions, not all productions, but in many productions, Ariel is either robotic and completely detached from everything that’s going on. It’s more of a physical spectacle. Or Ariel is a tricksy spirit and has that one moment, that feeling that seems to come out of nowhere where all of a sudden Ariel is like, hey, that’s not very nice. That doesn’t feel very satisfying to me because I think there is a thread and an arc of seeing Ariel’s light gets dimmed and dimmed and dimmed and dimmed until finally a change is made, and they are given their freedom and allowed to be. 

If that ever happens, I would love a crack at it again to go down that narrative arc. I think what we do in predominantly white institutions, or heterosexual spaces, or whatever we do to survive, I want to present that on stage and say, hey, this is exactly what Ariel is doing here. Ariel is the connection between the audience and the play. This is what we go through, please take a look at your best friend, or your neighbor, or your so-and-so that you reference in your office. The only Asian American person you have in your office or the only Black person, or the only gay person that you went to high school with once upon a time, I want you to really turn back and look and think about what their experience must’ve been like, and how their experience made your worldview possible. Even if you were ignoring it, which I think Prospero does for most of the play. So that was a very long-winded answer, but that’s still in me from many, many years ago. And if I got the chance, I would love to explore that story.

Lei: Sounds extremely exciting. So if you really got the chance to play Ariel again, I would a hundred percent be willing to see that production. That is going to be amazing. 

Thompson: Thank you. It’s complicated, right? This is what I mean about constructive complication. Because by chipping away and asking these nuanced questions, all of a sudden, it’s something people want to see. Because it’s real, it’s not this heightened, inherited thing that no one can connect to. It is reality, which is what causes these plays to have the longevity they do. 

Lei: Thank you for being here with us today. These are all my questions for today, and thank you so much again for participating in the Black Shakespeare database project. 

Thompson: I want to thank you for your work and for your involvement. This is such important work. I can’t wait to see the website go live and I truly feel honored and privileged to be a part of it.

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