Black Shakespeare(ans) Database

Darion McCloud

Artist Profile by Ah’Shaiyah Mitchell


​Darion McCloud is an actor, director, storyteller, educator, arts activist, and children’s literature advocate from Columbia, SC. He is the founder and Creative Director of NiA Theatre Company and Story Squad. Alongside this work, he is also a member of the South Carolina Shakespeare Company and Trustus Theatre. Darion is a Riley Institute Diversity Fellow and the 2019 recipient of the Jasper Project Theatre Artist of the Year Award. From the University of South Carolina, Darion has also been recognized as a recipient of the Andrew Billingsley and Literacy Leader awards. Darion is a formally trained visual artist who found his way to the stage twenty years ago via telling stories. He has been acting and teaching ever since. Darion enjoys crafting theatre, art experiences, and storytelling for the old, young, initiated and un-initiated.This can happen in numerous environments from classrooms to corporate settings, libraries, campfires, and theatres. Darion has committed his life to the transforming power of art.

Contact Information

Phone: (803) 553-2536


Full Interview Transcript


Mitchell: Cool so, I guess, we can just get started. Mainly, most of the questions are going to be about your work in Shakespeare, but I was reading through your bio and saw your work as a rights activist and with the NiA theatre company, so I also want to talk about those. Great. My first question – I was reading one of your interviews from the Jasper Project and you mentioned that you started performing in storytelling in 1993. I was wondering if you could talk about when you got involved with Shakespeare and what inspired you to.


McCloud: I don’t remember the exact year. I started storytelling in ’93 and then shortly after that I took a very circuitous route to the stage. I did n’t do theater in high school. I went to a high school that didn’t have a theatre program and I didn’t do it in college. I’ve always been a fan.

I didn’t do it early on, but when I got a gig at the Richmond library telling stories that laid a path for me to get to the stage as a performer as an actor. So, that was about ’93 so the exact date must have been about ‘96 or ‘97, maybe. I think I did my first – No, no, that can’t be right they can’t be right, I think it might have been right around 2000, I think, when I may have done my first show. I can’t remember exactly when it was. Late 90s/early 00s, I did my first Shakespeare.

One of the reasons I wanted to do it was that I’ve always been a fan of Shakespeare. Like I said, even though my high school didn’t have a theater program, you know, that was one of the classics – which is now being reconsidered, what is classical and not classic which I love – but anyway that’s a whole other discussion. It was, you know, Shakespeare is often in that cannon, like Chaucer, of great English writers. And I was the kid who was always amped to read Shakespeare in class. Nobody else liked it.

You know, because of the language and everything but I’ve always loved it. Since I was a kid, I always loved stories, always loved storytelling. I grew up a big comic book nerd, mythology nerd. At that time really Greek and Norse mythology were all that were really accessible to us, but, as you know, as time passed on I got more familiar with it. So, when we were reading Shakespeare in class I loved it. Loved it.

So, when the local Shakespeare company approached me about performing, I said, “Yeah, cool, I want to do that,” and plus, to be totally honest, you know Shakespeare is the prestige format. You know, as an actor or also as an audience member—whether this is wrong or right—when people see you doing Shakespeare they have certain thoughts about you and your ability. Whether they’re wrong or right to, you know. So, the fact that it was, like I said, kind of a prestige genre within theater was also attractive, but I really just love the stories. 

 I love the language and that’s why I think it gets so much prestige because it is the closest thing you could get, while still speaking English, to speaking a foreign language. There’s almost like a code you have to crack. You can understand iambic pentameter and all those things all you want, but it’s still understanding where you are in the moment, who that character is in the moment. I can’t stand to go see a performance of people doing Shakespeare, instead of a play.

People put all this importance on the language and the breathing and all. It’s just like this is boring as hell. But, to take that language and make it live and make it breathe. To take those characters through whatever the situation, whatever the moment is, whether it be funny or tragic or whatever, I just dug it. I get amped up just talking about it. 

That was one of the reasons I was amped to talk to you because, to be totally honest, I don’t get a chance to talk with Black people a lot about what I do. I mean, we have an audience, of course, we have a Black audience. I think you may be the first Black person – you may be the first Black interview I’ve done about Shakespeare. I’ve done interviews, but you’re the first, you know whether it’s Black media or Black academia, or whatever you’re the first. So, thank you for that.

In the email I sent I asked whether you’re familiar with Keith Hamilton Cobb or Debra-Ann Bird’s work, primarily because they focus on the actors’ experience when performing Othello.


Mitchell: So, I was wondering if you can speak a little to your experience with performing as Othello. I saw it in your resume. It feels so weird to talk to someone like knowing some of their experiences without actually knowing them.


McCloud: It’s cool. It’s cool. Othello for me—to be totally honest—Othello for me was one that I wanted that to be a do over for me. That was not, I thought, one of my better turns to be totally honest. It rounded out, I thought, into a good show. But it never met my expectations, just to be honest with myself and with my fellow castmates.

It was loaded. It was that core that I talked about that is as good as anybody anywhere. There was that core. Opening night was not a disaster at all and acceptable by most people’s standards but unacceptable by my own and some of my castmates’ also. We rounded out within a show or two to have a good show. We always had, I think, a very good show, but I was always disappointed because I thought that show could have and should have been great. 

But it showed me a bunch of things. I learned a lot from that one. For one thing, I pushed the show with a bit of arrogance. There were certain aspects about that character—I don’t know what they speak on in some of these other pieces—there are certain aspects about that character and about the story I just didn’t get, to be totally honest. I wasn’t getting it from my director. I was talking with my director and not really getting it. But, I said, “I’m not gonna worry about that.” I thought I was director-proof. I thought, if I come out here and I do my thing, I’m going to be fine because I was arrogant. 

But I had other things. I was a relatively new Father then, so I had plenty of distraction at home. I still had a day gig then, so I had that going on which wasn’t different from any other time. It just seemed to be a tumultuous time for me and I did not connect with the character as I should have. I knew that even, but I was arrogant enough to think I would work it out in performance. And it didn’t happen. You know, I can say it wasn’t a disaster. It was a good show, but it was not a great show and I expected, wanted a great show.


Mitchell: I was just going to ask if you had any sort of set opinions about the character, Othello, going in. I know you’re saying that there were certain things about him that you didn’t quite click with. Do you mind expanding on that?


McCloud: I think, you know, it’s the perspective of 400 years ago Shakespeare. The whole idea is that the Moor is an outsider. That’s easy enough to say, but I don’t really think that the text supports it in a real, meaningful way. I read that Morgan Freeman had struggled with the role before also, so that’s interesting.

It seemed to be out of context. It seemed not like a Black character almost to me. It almost seemed whitewashed in a way. Now, you gotta have to take context because it’s 400 years ago. It was written for a particular audience. Of course, it’s not going to be. It’s part of my job as an actor to, you know, if there aren’t connections there, to find where they are. There are always connections. If it’s a human character or a character that has human characteristics, there are connections. It’s my job to find them. Now, I think I did as good a job as possible finding them.

I think the Moor is celebrated because he’s Shakespeare’s Black character, you know, the Black cat.

But, I think the Moor should be questioned a little bit, too. I think he should be questioned a little bit. I think he’s a rather—I don’t know if Shakespeare was trying to flex and show he could write in a Black character, or whatever, but there was much about him that rang hollow to me and that I never really connected with. It wound up kind of, you know, tripping me up later, I think.

I’m sorry. That wasn’t the most precise answer.


Mitchell: No, that’s perfectly fine. This is about you telling me about your experience in any way that you can.

Yeah, that’s something that we’ve read a lot about in our class. The way that Othello is a Black character, yes, but he was a Black character written to be played by a white person, right.


McCloud: Yes, yeah.


Mitchell: A lot of the works that we’ve read talk about actors sort of connecting themselves, like Keith Hamilton Cobb and Deborah-Ann Bird, with Othello. They are thinking through the ways in which their lives sort of coincide, like the way that Othello ingratiates himself with the people around him but is still—


McCloud: He’s othered, no matter what.


Mitchell: But he thinks he’s a part of it, but it sort of pulls apart as the play goes on. We talked a lot about how even playing that part can even, in some ways, perpetuate the parts about the sort of Blackness that Shakespeare is playing up in the play.


McCloud: Yeah, I think that’s maybe one of the things. Like I said this is one of the rare opportunities I’ve had to actually talk about this other than and wrestle with it in my own head.

I think Shakespeare gets celebrated, like I said, because he brought a Black character. He’s supposed to be playing up Blackness . There’s not a whole lot that’s Black—I don’t know what Black was 400 years ago, of course, I’m not there, historically. But, there is this racial memory. There’s a lot of things for me to go off of. I have played other Black characters from antiquity and felt more connected, you know. I found myself in that show [Othello] doing the thing that I talked to you about, just kind of performing instead of really connecting and really just feeling what’s going on with him. I found myself falling back on, like I said, those bad Shakespeare performances. I talked this way and I walked this way and my arm sweeps this way. A lot of it just did connect.

Plus, I think also, my director—I couldn’t go to my director to have this conversation because she just couldn’t understand it, you know. She was a white woman and she just could not, you know. There’s no malice in this, because she directed me in other shows, and we did great work together, I think. But, Othello is it’s own kind of particular thing.


Mitchell: So, I think you already answered one of my questions already in talking about your dynamic with your director during the play.


McCloud: Yeah, I mean the reality is for the most part, if you work in this business, you will be working with white directors, you know. No matter what the material, you’re mostly working on white directors. Plus, I said, people are people. You connect with some you know, hopefully. I always think it’s my gig as an actor because I’m a director, too, so I kind of see both sides. But as an actor, it’s my gig to form at least a connection where we could talk about what the director wants. Even if he or she doesn’t know, it is my gig to help them find what they want. It is also my gig to bring that character to life and bring my truth to that character.

As far as just knowledge, she had and still has far more academic and historical knowledge about Shakespeare and these characters. That’s kind of what she does. She’s a Shakespearean. But knowledge in itself—this is art. Like I like to say, the best part of art is the part that you can’t define. You could quantitate. You could qualify. You could do all the things, break it down. We could talk about technique and all these things, and all those things are correct. There’s a methodology, no doubt, but the thing that makes it—You know, people shy away from the word magic or soul. Once, somebody told me in a very apologetic way that NiA had a lot of soul and I took it as a greatest compliment, because I know we have all those other things too. Like I said, it’s art. It’s beyond communication.

You know, so in that way, I think we were hamstrung a little bit because we didn’t have a—. I’m not trying to throw her under the bus at all. She’s, like I said, we’ve done other work together and we’ve done great work. She’s helped me out a lot, but in that particular situation, I think we didn’t have a common language. So we couldn’t. I just couldn’t make the connections, or I did not make the connections.


Mitchell: Moving away from Othello a little bit. Was the experience of playing Othello versus Don Pedro in Much Ado About Nothing, a non racialized character a different experience?


McCloud: Oh yeah. I mean, it’s Much Ado About Nothing, you know, Shakespeare’s silliness. It’s a comedy and actually that was my first Shakespeare. That was a great cast also. And it was just a lot of fun. Actually, that was the show that seduced me.

Here in the Shakespeare company, like a lot of places, we perform in one of the local parks in an amphitheater. I think it was opening night and the park had double booked so there’s a reggae festival across the lake going on and we were supposed to go on. So, they worked out something with the reggae festival. They ended 30 minutes early and we went on 30 minutes late or whatever they worked out, so what happened was a lot of the people from the reggae festival funneled over to our show.

And so we didn’t have the Shakespeare […] Then, when we used to perform in the park, one thing I used to love is we used to have a large homeless community that would come and see us. So, you get to know them. Like, “Yo, what’s up,dude.” I remember walking from backstage and looking out on that audience and I don’t know how many that amphitheater seats. It seats, let’s say, 1500 people or whatever and it was packed and it was overflowing. Some of the richest people in Columbia were literally sitting right beside homeless people. And people were there from the reggae festival and people were there, you know with their families with their carriages. It was just a smattering of humanity. It just felt so good.

I wasn’t a company member at that point. After I did that show they asked me to join the company. That show really seduced me because that’s what I want.

Art makes everything better. I don’t  believe art is for a privileged group. I don’t believe it’s for only the educated. It’s just for people. If you’re a person now, you may not dig everything. There’s a lot of art that I don’t dig. Some of it, I don’t do because I’m ignorant. I don’t know enough about it. When I first was exposed to color field painting I didn’t get it. But as I got to know more about some of the practitioners and some of the work itself, I could look with different eyes and see different things and appreciate different things. So, if you don’t dig what I’m doing, that’s cool with me. Mostly, I just feel like if you knew more,  you probably would but I think most people will dig what I do, even if you don’t know.

But, I love sharing art. Like I said, you know it was everybody. It was all people, young people, Black, white, Asian, Latin, you name it. If it was in Colombia, I felt like they were there that night. And it was beautiful, so that play always has a special place in my heart for that reason. 

Plus, Don Pedro is a great character. You get to be a little dangerous. You know, you look good and they make sure you have a good costume because you’re the Prince. You get to have fun. You get to have some fun scenes and some dangerous scenes and scenes with some good sexual tension. It was just fun. I really enjoyed it. A lot of my friends were in that show, a lot of really good talented people, so it was a very enjoyable experience.


Mitchell: That’s amazing. Is there a Shakespeare role that you ever wish you were cast in or that you want to be cast as in the future?


McCloud: Yeah, I do. It’s a funny story. So, we did the Scottish play—we did Macbeth. We did Macbeth. It must have been like three years ago maybenow . You know, this past year just messes up everybody’s math. I mean, this is kind of stereotypical or cliche but some things become cliches because they’re truths. That’s my favorite Shakespeare play for obvious reasons. And my favorite Shakespeare character is Macduff. But I think, possibly the best Shakespearean role is Macbeth.

So, we’re auditioning for the play and actually, initially I got cast as Macbeth. But, you know, I have my own company. This is my hustle. I’m a full time theatre artist. Like I said, I’ve gone through periods when I had a day gig, but for the past 10 years plus I’ve been a full-time theatre  artist, so the director was a little concerned about my commitment to the role. Just literally how much time do you have. There are only so many hours in a day. This is a big role. I take three or four big roles, at a time anyway. But I can understand her trying to protect her show. 

So, she just told me, “Frankly, I’m uncomfortable with you being Macbeth because I just don’t know how much time you have to give me.” I figured, okay cool. Peace, have a good show. 

She’s like, “But, what about Macduff?” 

You know, that’s my favorite Shakespeare character because, like I said, I grew up a nerd. I grew up loving comics and all of that and Macduff always felt to me like a superhero. Macbeth has this protective spell on him where he can’t be felled by man born of woman and the Macduff is the only one. He was always kind of real regular until the end. So, it’s my favorite Shakespearean character and I’ve always thought of Macduffhe was the one that would do right. Out of everyone else, he was the one who was incorruptible. He was the one that would do right and he had lost the most. You know, his family gets killed and all that. I just like Macduff. I’ve always liked him.

She asked, “what about Macduff because I want you in the show. You gotta be in the show.” Well, you know it’s my favorite character anyway, so why not. I played Macduff against another actor who played Macbeth. He did a fine job. I had a great time and we killed it. It was a really good show and, at the end, I got to hold up Shakespeare’s severed bloody head.

Oh man, it was so cool. We had a local artist mold a head of Shakespeare, and of course, we did the dripping blood and all that good stuff. Every night I would come on stage  after the fight, you know, and had that dripping bloody head. The directors were like, okay you’re milking that a little bit too much. One time I thought, okay, watch this. You thought it was long last night. Watch me tonight. It was just so much fun. How many times am I going to get a chance to stand on stage with a severed head? Oh yeah, you’re gonna have to push me off this stage.

It was fun. It was a good show but still I would like to play Macbeth because I still think that’s a great character.


Mitchell: Can you talk a bit more about what it means to be an arts activist?


McCloud: For me, an arts activist is—. I try to live what I call a purpose driven life. Art is what I do. My official training is actually as a visual artist. I have a bachelor of arts in studio arts. Like I said, I’ve kind of meandered to the stage, so I do a lot of visual art and I work with disenfranchised or underprivileged communities. I work with seniors. I really believe art makes things better, so I try to take art to places where it’s not and I try to be very active in it. Not only that, I try to serve on panels.

One of the things that I’ve always had a little burn about was we’re always having these panel discussions about whatever, inequity and injustice. We always have represented always the political class, the clergy, criminal justice, legal class, the money class. Nobody ever invites the artist and the only time you get invited as an artist is if you’re rich and famous. If you’re an artist out here in the streets doing your work, applying it, people devalue your work. People think your work only has value if there’s a dollar amount attached to it, or it’s something that they could be impressed with. But I tell people all the time we won’t get the results we’re looking for without artists at the table.

We’re the storytellers of the community. We house the community’s soul. We house the histories. We dream the futures. We salve the present.

I find myself in a lot of these panels talking about this stuff. I’m lucky enough to have worked with every kind of person from three year olds to 93 year olds. A  large part of my practice is with young people. But, a large part of my practice is with older people. I’ve been lucky to do a lot of different things, and one of the things I find with older people—I call them “shelf people,” because they’re retired and we think they’re no longer productive, so we put them on the shelf. They are so happy when someone takes them off that shelf and engages them and allows them to make their contribution.

So, I’ve been lucky enough to do that. I’ve been lucky enough to work with young people. I’ve just been lucky, so for me to be an arts activist, it takes some of the things I just talked about, whether it’s teaching class or performing for or performing with or lecturing in a class or speaking on a panel or consulting a group about art.

I’m not into frivolous things. ,I’m not into, you know, “Oh, this is going to make me famous.” Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I’m opposed. That’s not my main pursuit, just doing something purely for the money. I have to be careful, saying that, because it makes it sound like—I’m not frowning on those things and if they come my way and when they come my way, I am happy.

But I tried to live a purpose driven life and I tried to apply my skills as they are where I think they can work.


Mitchell: My last question is, I was wondering what inspired you to start the NiA Theatre company.


McCloud: Oh, NiA.That was pretty easy. The year I started acting, actually, I’d done three plays. I was in my third play before I’d ever had an acting class.

At that point, I considered myself a visual artist who was cheating with theatre. Trustus (a local theatre) had, what was then, an African American acting workshop and I enrolled in that and I took some formal acting classes, while I was still working and performing. Then, out of that came a small core of us who just kept meeting and kept replicating the things that we were doing at Trustus.The goal was to create roles for Black artists, so we didn’t have to wait for somebody to call us like, “Hey, we got a part for you. You got a cool Black chick you can send over here? We got one part.” But no, we’ll make our own. We’re gonna make our own work.

From day one, I’ve just kind of led that group. I’ve been—we call it the creative director, because I do a lot of things. 2023 will be our 25th anniversary. The idea is to supply an opportunity for actors who wouldn’t normally get it. So, there’s a big teaching phase. We have a lot of people, I’m really proud to say, who came to our company with no experience. We got one dude who came to our company and had never seen a play. Now, he’s been one of the feature characters on television and he’s done a lot of movies. We’ve got other actors who’ve gone on and done basically everything. And we have people who are brand new learning what rehearsal means. 7:00 means 7:00 and not 7:30 or whatever, you know. So, we do that and we’ve expanded the opportunity now. At our peak we’ve been at one time white, Black, Asian, Latin, straight, gay, bible thumper, atheist. If you name it, we were that. 

The company has slimmed down a little bit now, but we’re all about opportunity. We’re all about giving audiences opportunities to see things that other theatre companies wouldn’t do and about giving actors and directors the opportunity to work with people and with stories they wouldn’t get a chance to do in other houses, so that’s NiA.


Mitchell: Well, thank you for sharing with me.

Scroll to Top