Black Shakespeare(ans) Database

Gabrielle Randle-Bent


Gabrielle Randle-Bent is a scholar, director, and dramaturg. She holds a dual BA degree in drama and sociology from Stanford University and an MA degree in performance as public practice from The University of Texas at Austin. Her PhD dissertation project at Northwestern University is titled “On the Possibility of Blackness and the Inevitability of Revolution: How Black Feeling Changed the World.” She has taught at UT Austin, Northwestern, and the University of Chicago.

Her recent collaborations include Co-Directing, with Artistic Director Charlie Newell, Court Theatre’s Fall 2021 production of The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice and co-directing We are Proud to Present a Presentation…, by Jackie Drury, at Steppenwolf for Young Adults. She served as the dramaturg and assistant director for Court Theatre’s production of Oedipus Rex and dramaturg For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf directed by Seret Scott. In Chicago, she has dramaturged and directed for Sideshow Theatre, where she is also an ensemble member, Victory Gardens, Chicago Dramatists, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Northlight, and the Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts. She will direct Steppenwolf’s first production in their Round Theatre, J. Nicole Brook’s adaptation of Eve L. Ewing’s 1919 in the winter of 2022. Gabrielle is an active member of the Black Theatre Association Focus Group for the Association for Theatre in Higher Education and has served two terms as its graduate representative. She was featured in American Theatre Magazine’s Role Call: People to Watch. In September 2020, she completed a fellowship year at the University of Chicago where she was the inaugural Court Theatre Research Fellow.

Contact Information

Phone: (817) 343-3065


Full Interview Transcript


Interviewer: All right. There we go. Thank you so much for being here.

Randle-Bent: I will shrink my screen so I can look at you.

Interviewer: Okay, perfect. I will start at the beginning. Could you tell me a little bit about your experience discovering Shakespeare? Your, like, Shakespearean origin story.

Randle-Bent: Yeah! So, I was actually thinking about this during the conversation with Debra Ann Byrd, because she’s so open about her mentors and the people who have spoken into her life, and I had totally forgotten this but my theatrical career, in high school, began with a Shakespeare adaptation. And it’s also the first time that I was invited to direct. So, I went to a very conservative Episcopalian high school in, I shit you not, a town called White Settlement, Texas, that is just outside of Fort Worth. And my drama teacher…so I was, you know, fill in the blank, one of the only very few Black students there, and my drama teacher Ricki Zide was just this amazing fiery Jewish woman who…now I’ve met many of those people in my life, but then she was a very special unicorn for me. And I was a basketball kid and a volleyball kid and I played sports and did math and physics and stuff, and I knew everything about what I wanted to be in my life. But I also have really bad asthma and allergies. And so I never could play softball, which would have been the, like third thing, where all of my all of my sports-playing friends, we played volleyball together, basketball together…and then they all went and played softball and I did drama club. And my senior year, we did an adaptation of Taming of the Shrew. A musical adaptation called Shrew! Exclamation point. And I’d always been the stage manager since freshman year, and that year…but I would sit next to Zide, and I would always be like, what if they did this? What if they went over here? What if they did that? And that year, she was like, “okay, you’re my assistant director.” I was like, “okay, I don’t know what that means, but I’m going to do it.” So, I was the assistant director of the All Saints’ Episcopal School’s production of Shrew! Exclamation point. Exactly. Which is not good and not worth talking about. I don’t even know who adapted it. But I think that cutting my teeth in the theater in a space that wasn’t about…it wasn’t about finding a world that was mine or…you know? She was literally just like, “get in here. We’re doing stuff. This is not your space, this is not my space. We’re doing stuff and we’re making a thing.” I think [that] has been like the defining factor of the type of work that I do and the type of work I seek out from then on. So, yeah, my theater origin story, which I don’t actually talk about a lot…I often talk about my first foray into theater in college after I decided not to become an engineer. But really, in high school, it was Taming of the Shrew, and it was Ricki Zide.

Interviewer: That’s so fun. Shrew! Exclamation point!

Randle-Bent: Just, just as awful as you could possibly…(laughter)…it just couldn’t be worse.

Interviewer: Oh man, the high school theatre productions. So, you’ve come so far! And now that you are doing the thing professionally and well-established in the community…have you had any particularly rewarding experiences as a Black Shakespearean that combined your identity and your studies and projects in a really fulfilling way? Or some that combined it in a not-very-fulfilling way, if you want to talk about that as well.

Randle-Bent: Yeah. I think that…I’m trying to think… [a neighbor and their dogs pass by] Hi, how are you? Good! Hi puppers!

I, and so many people who we are working with on Othello, have the same story. That Shakespeare is something that we’ve admired often from a distance. One of my first shows that I went to in Chicago was Song of Lear at [Chicago Shakespeare Theater]. My husband is actually from 20 minutes outside of Stratford, so whenever we go back home, he and his mom…a ritual that they have is going to the [Royal Shakespeare Company], and I’ve been three or four times now. And one of the most transformative experiences I’ve ever had as an audience member was seeing Titus Andronicus in a production where Aaron the Moor…I don’t even know. It wasn’t explicit, it wasn’t like, “we’re doing this thing.” It was just a combination of just brilliant direction, and just an unreal performance where it felt like everything he said was about Black liberation. He was the plumb line for the production and everybody else was unmoored. And, I was just like, “wow!” This is what’s possible when you flip something on its head, when you skew expectations, and when you don’t imagine that a Black man fighting for his life is a villain. And for the life of his child, right? Everything he thinks was logical and everything that everybody else is doing is madness. So, I guess I say all that to say: I’ve had all of these transformative experiences with Shakespeare as an audience member. And I think it would be hard to find a Black theatre maker or practitioner who also didn’t feel that way, who didn’t have an Ophelia monologue or didn’t have – sort of like Keith Hamilton Cobb was talking about with Titania, right? – didn’t have something that just lifts them up from the inside. They are very, very few people who have had the opportunity to do that work. So, I’ve done three, maybe four productions of either Shakespeare, or Shakespearean adaptations. Just because I get called to do new play dramaturgy, I get called to do lots of things that don’t have to do with Shakespeare, which is, I don’t know, a tragedy. And so, I would just say that this: I, Banquo was a blast and was amazing, but I would say that this opportunity to not just co-direct Othello but…Charlie [Newell] has done all but 10 or something? Something insane. All of the plays. 50 some odd Shakespearean plays in adaptations. And so, getting to be in a position where I just get to learn, and get to learn how to listen to the text, and how to understand the meter and the rhythm, and how to play with these positions, and do the thing that I’ve just been transfixed by so many times as an audience member is such a gift. I don’t know how to describe it as anything other than that because there’s so much text I’ve worked with that’s so beautiful. But in terms of what I’ve seen…maybe it’s because people have been working on it so long, right? There is so much that you can do with Shakespeare that it’s so hard to do with other texts. There’s so much there. I think it would be like going and getting the first early manuscripts of Farsi or of Rumi in Farsi, right? There’s just so much you can do when you’re like, “oh, this is the thing we’ve all been trying to do,” right? Like, this is the thing. I don’t know, I just feel really grateful for this opportunity, because there’s just so much beauty to unpack. I don’t know, I sound like I’m fangirling over Shakespeare, and I didn’t really expect to say that and to sound like that. Yeah, there are a lot of opportunities you don’t get when you make theater. There are a lot of places where people expect you to go and things people expect you to be interested in. And I don’t know a Black theater maker who hasn’t fallen in love with a Shakespearean piece and wouldn’t love to be considered to be a part of them, and that opportunity is really rare. And it often comes in the guise of just Othello or, you know, something else that isn’t the full breadth of the work. And so, getting to take on the full breadth of this production is really exciting.

Interviewer: Yeah. I’m thinking about the thing that you said about the production at RSC, you said Aaron and “liberation.” And it reminded me a bit of your PhD dissertation, On the Possibility of Blackness and the Inevitability of Revolution: How Black Feeling Changed the World. And I was wondering if you could talk about how your research for that might have informed your relationship to the performances and productions that you work on.

Randle-Bent: Yeah, it’s sort of inextricable. So, that before the colon is actually, I think it was a placeholder when I put it in. I stole it from a Nikki Giovanni poem; it’s a title. But I just felt like it was such a beautiful juxtaposition, right? In that, for me, my journey through affect theory and through what, you know, folks like Amber Muster and Josh Chambers-Letson and Jen Nash – the last two who are on my committee – are thinking about in terms of like Black feeling and sensationalism, right? That, for me, has been this really exciting opportunity to understand Blackness. Not as an ontological or biological fact, but as a shared experience of being an affective resonance, that is only limited by our imaginations, right? It’s only limited by our ability to know and see each other. The ways that Blackness and Black people manifest themselves all over the world is my life’s passion. The kind of imperfect word for me that I’m always holding on to is “heterogeneity”, right? I’m less interested in making space for one notion of Blackness or for a right way to be, a right way to be with or for or about Black people and I’m totally dedicated to the liberatory practice that Blackness can be, wherever and however and whoever it needs to be in a moment. And that is where liberation exists, right? Definitions begin to fail, and self-determination is the only logical…exterior definitions begin to fail, and self-determination is the only logical next step. And that’s where I find liberation for my people. And so, the thing you might know, just in your experience of being an academic, is that thinking expansively is great and beautiful and powerful, and there are so many tools. For me, I think of myself as a theorist. There are so many people I’m drawing from and really excited by and just, like, groove on. But even Saidiya Hartman has limits, right? Even Christina Sharpe has limits, even Walter Benjamin has limits. And so, where I find the place…when I’m like, “I don’t know what this is, I don’t know how this works. I don’t know if this exists in the real world. I don’t know if my grandmother would understand this.” And my grandmother doesn’t understand it, then it’s not useful for us and it’s not about Black people, it’s about me and my own thoughts. Is the rehearsal room. The rehearsal room is where I’m like, “okay, let’s see if this works.” If I say it and no one understands it, it’s not a thing. It’s not a place we can go, it’s not a way we get free, it’s just an idea I had that sounds good and some people in a room are going to clap for me after a panel. But it’s not a thing that we can make, and do, and be. And if it’s not that, then I don’t want anything to do with it. And so, praxis for me is really central, because my ideas, just…who cares? Who cares if I have good ideas? It matters if those ideas are tangible, practical ways that people find their own selves, their own stories, their own liberatory practices, and that…yeah. Yeah!

Interviewer: I love that. I really love what you said about, “whatever it needs to be in the moment.” I was wondering if you could talk a bit about the production that you mentioned, the Othello that you’re co-directing at the [Court Theatre]. If you could talk about some of your hopes for that production upcoming this fall.

Randle-Bent: Yeah. I think my biggest hope is that…so much of what my work is…I wouldn’t say…I actively wouldn’t say, even though I’m going to say it out loud…it’s not really useful to say a negative into the space, but like…I actively wouldn’t say that the audience is an afterthought for me. But I do think…and this is sort of my…y’all got a taste of my theorization, right? And my …things don’t taste good if you don’t put love into them. And so often, I’ll go to something, or I’ll see a piece of theatre, I’ll do whatever, and I’ll be like, “that was beautiful, but something’s up.” And then I’ll talk to somebody who’s in the cast or whatever and they’re like, “oh yeah, it was a mess, like, it was crazy.” You know? And so, for me, I think that practices of care are not a rhetorical strategy for me. I’m not like, “oh, this is the thing we should do and it’s the way we should be.” I’m like, “if we care about each other, things will be more beautiful.” We will discover things better. We will be braver. We will take risks that we could never have taken if we didn’t know each other, if we couldn’t laugh, if we couldn’t love. If we couldn’t address harm in ways where we get to move forward the next day, and we don’t have to be stuck in it for weeks and weeks, and bring in consultants and figure stuff out and whatever, right? If we spend days and days and rehearsal just learning how to care for each other, then we can tell whatever story we fucking want. We can tell any story. Because we have that right: we should be able to tell whatever story we want, but we shouldn’t be able to do whatever we want to people. So, if we can be in a room where the goal is to know how to treat people, and to listen to them when they ask you how to treat them, then something meaningful can happen. For me, I believe in that wholeheartedly, and I’ve taken that thesis into dozens of rehearsal rooms, but like, Othello is a hard one. Othello is a really hard one because it’s not…because it’s a tragedy that never has really been given the opportunity to be a tragedy. Every production of Othello I’ve seen, I’ve just left really happy that Iago got everything he wanted. Because Iago is always just the best. He’s such a good villain. He’s so good. And when he’s played well, it’s just a high that is hard to…he’s like Walter White before Walter White, right? You don’t even realize that you shouldn’t be rooting for him. And so, in this moment, to come into this play with care means that we have to undo a lot of our desire for villainy, and a lot of our desire to watch somebody manipulate other people so successfully and get away with it. And that means undoing one of my favorite characters in Shakespeare, right? And that means paying attention to a guy who I don’t really care that much about. Or I didn’t before we got started, right? Othello, who I was just, like, “is just a hollow shell of a man. I don’t think there’s a character there. I don’t know why we’re digging into it.” And so, taking my practice of care from my comfort zone and putting it in a place where we’re literally the stakes of representation, and misogyny, and racism, and all of the phobias and all the -isms are just out on display, right? And saying, “what if we care about these people? What if we genuinely empathize, and give and breathe humanity into their experiences? Can we learn something?” I think is really tough, because the question could be no – or, the answer could be no. I think that if I’m going to put my time and energy and reputation where my mouth is, then to get to Othello and to not try would be the real tragedy. That would be the real shame, to say, “okay, I think it works, but only when I’m comfortable,” or, “only when I’m challenging a contemporary playwright” or, “only when I’m challenging a contemporary Black playwright,” or “only if everybody feels like this is a good idea. Then I can do all of these positive, good, warm and fuzzy thoughts. But I can’t do it with something that everyone thinks is a bad idea.” Then what’s the point of doing?

Interviewer: Yeah. That’s – I just am so into everything that you’re saying, in terms of having been in multiple rehearsal rooms and seeing when care happens and when it doesn’t. I just could not agree more.

Randle-Bent: Yeah. You can do so much more! When you just get to know each other.

Interviewer: Yeah, for sure! For my last official question, before I ask, you know, if there’s anything that you would like to touch on that we haven’t. What do you – both on a personal level and on a broader academic and performance level – what do you hope to see from the Shakespearean community moving forward, or what are some of your own goals for making that happen in your own spheres?

Randle-Bent: Yeah, I mean, I think, for me, this idea of heterogeneity, which is the word I gravitate to outside of…because the E, D, and I [diversity, equity, and inclusion] make me uncomfortable. I mean, the E great, but the D and I, eh. I think that for me, heterogeneity of experience is so important. My hope is that all of these brilliant actors and directors and dramaturgs and designers who I’ve run across who are like, “I love that show. I would love to play Emilia; I would love to play Roxane. I would love to be in the history plays.” All of those folks who feel like they have something to offer to this thing that we imagine is not for us. I just hope that they get the chance, because I think that the richness of these texts is because they aren’t stagnant. And so, the idea that we’re fighting against ghosts of 100 years ago or 500 years ago or whatever is, I think…as harmful as the First Folio is, our fight isn’t against these ghosts of the past. Our fight is against this idea that the thing we know to be true now has always been true and can’t ever be anything else. And for me it’s about the opportunity to prove that something different is possible. And that every time a Black person walks into a room, things have to change. By virtue, it’s a gravitational pool, right? And not just Black people, but the way that Blackness operates in spaces is about uncovering truth. It’s a new type of legibility that isn’t possible when Black people aren’t there. And so why would we take something that we know is so beautiful and so rich and so vibrant, and not invite light into it? Not invite clarity, not invite experimentation? And for me, that’s every aspect of theater. That’s about Soyinka, that’s about Beckett, that’s about Genet, it’s about all the people. It’s like, what happens when we could do anything, when we choose what to do? Watch out. Yeah!

Interviewer: I think that’s a beautiful note to end on…unless there’s anything else that’s really important to you that we didn’t touch on, or any recent, current, or upcoming productions or projects that you want to discuss. Yeah, thank you so much for being here.

Randle-Bent: No problem! Thank you for inviting me!


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