Black Shakespeare(ans) Database

Herbert Parker

Artist Profile by Kree Middleton


“Herb Parker came to ETSU after 25 years as an actor. His directing credits for the Department of Theatre and Dance include HamletAs You Like It, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Trojan Women, and his own adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Caesar 2012. He is a five-time recipient of the KCACTF Meritorious Service Award for “Excellence in Directing” for his ETSU productions of Little Shop of Horrors, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Six Characters in Search of an Author, Race, and Othello. He has acted on campus in Macbeth, Inherit the Wind, and in a co-production with Oldcastle Theatre Company, My Children! My Africa! He is the author of two books from Routledge; Acting Shakespeare is Outrageous! Playing the Bard for Beginners, and A Monologue is an Outrageous Situation! How to Survive the 60-Second Audition, published in July 2017 and March 2016, respectively. His first book, Bark Like a Dog! Outrageous Ideas for Actors, was published in 2013. Professor Parker holds a BFA in Theatre Arts from Stephens College and an MFA from Ohio University’s Professional Actor Training Program, and he is a proud long-time member of Actors’ Equity Association.”

Contact Information


Phone: (423) 439-6514

Full Interview Transcript


Middleton: What was your first encounter with Shakespeare? Was it memorable? How did you become interested originally?

Parker: Well, I think like a lot of people it came about going back to high school English class. Sitting in class and the teacher asking us to open the text and read the play aloud and switching from character to character. From an acting standpoint, I realized I liked speaking aloud, reading aloud, and eventually, from a Shakespeare point of view, I became very fascinated with the language, the beauty of the language, the depth of the language, and that led me to my interest that has grown all these years.

Middleton: That leads me to my next question. I know that James Baldwin wrote an essay called, “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare,” so I’m kind of interested in how your relationship to Shakespeare has kind of evolved over all this time.

Parker: Well, I love Shakespeare. I love Shakespeare and Baldwin. As a matter of fact, of course it was a sad occasion, but I did attend his funeral in NYC at St Patrick Cathedral, a lot of years ago. Love James Baldwin, love what he was able to do, and I hope that he is remembered these days, especially from our young African Americans of letters—well anyone! But, having said that, Shakespeare over the years has spoken to me. I love his words. I love the words he made up. I love the ideas and the issues related to the human experience which he managed to touch upon in all of his plays. And I certainly hear the cry of suspicion that no one person could have written all these plays with all of these ideas and issues. And I hear it. I choose to believe that Shakespeare wrote it, but on the other hand, I’m always quick to tell my students that ultimately I don’t care. I’m simply glad and delighted that we’ve been so blessed for them to survive which is no small matter—to survive from the 15th century to the present day. So, I’m a fan, an unabashed, loving fan. 

Middleton: I’ve also heard instances where Shakespeare is black, so there are a lot of theories going on. 

Parker: I hadn’t heard that. I heard.. some had said that Queen Elizabeth wrote some of his plays. Sir Walter Raleigh wrote some of his plays. Whoever did, thank goodness! Thank you! Thank you! Whoever did, wherever you are!

Middleton: Well said. I do want to talk about Othello and other characters and how it can be—just in discussions in classes, we’ve talked about how it can be traumatic to play some of his black roles like Othello, that are kind of traumatic, and racist, misogynistic. So where would you position yourself in this discussion? Do you think it’s traumatic for black actors to continue to play these roles?

Parker: No. No. I understudied Othello many years ago when I was working as an actor, and of course, I directed the play at East Tennessee State some years ago, which I really loved doing. Many years ago, I heard the famous Paul Robeson record recording of his production of Shakespeare with Jose Ferrer and Uta Hagen and loved it and began part of my education. My stumbling, fumbling, youthful education in Shakespeare was when I began to listen to all these old recordings—mostly British actors, trying to sound like them, thinking that I used to do a British accent to do Shakespeare. But of course I had a long journey ahead of me, a long evolution.

I see no trauma. I see trauma in the African American experience. I see trauma in the existence of black people on the face of the Earth.Yes, I do. But therefore to me, Othello is just simply one of many many works of art that addresses that issue. I do believe that Othello is one of only 3 characters that Shakespeare wrote where race was germane. Othello, Prince of Morocco in Merchant of Venice, and also Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus where it’s expressly the color of their skin, it’s expressly mentioned. Matter of fact, I noticed recently, I saw quite a wonderful production of Merchant of Venice recently on DVD from the Nashville Theater. A wonderful production. And when Morocco exits the scene where he has not won the hand of Portia by making the right choice of casket, there’s a line in the text that she says as he’s left, which was taken out of the play, the production that I saw. And I thought, “Oooh. Aah. There’s a political correctness there.” The line is, after Prince Morocco has left, she says, “A gentle riddance. Go. May all of his complexion choose me so.” And I had no problem with it staying in. It’s in! It’s part of the play. It’s what it’s about.

I hope I’m answering your question. I see no trauma. As a matter of fact, I think trauma that exists for Othello because of his race, for Aaron the Moor because of his race, for Prince of Morocco because of his race, all of that trauma, I think it’s addressed in the language of the play, in the story of the play. But in a very real way, certainly in terms of Othello, it wasn’t ultimately his downfall. His downfall was his jealousy and being willing to believe Iago. Of course, so much of this was set in motion because of his race because he had the audacity to marry Desdemona. But, so much of this, all of these plays, particularly Othello, are so rich with ideas and notions about life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness and existence in the world and love. And all of the plays touch on all of those issues in abundance during the entirety of the play, and that’s why his work is so rich. I don’t know if a young black actor would feel put upon by playing such a role. I don’t know if that—I would be very disappointed if a young actor felt he couldn’t play the role because the role wasn’t strong enough, a strong black man. I made very clear how strong Othello is.

Middleton: Yeah, I agree.

Parker: What’s also made clear is his humanity. And because he questions his worth and that gets back to race. So much there.

Middleton: Can you actually speak a little bit to your experience preparing or playing Othello? When I was reading up about you, I actually didn’t even see that.

Parker: Oh, well I didn’t play the role. I understudied the role.

Middleton: Oh, okay got you.

Parker: As a matter of fact, I was working at a repertoire company, and two plays—I was cast in two plays that particular season. This was the Missouri Repertory Theatre, now known as the Kansas City Repertory. And this was the season of 1986, and I played the lead in Fugard’s play “Master Harold” … and the Boys. And then at the same time, the play Othello was part of the rep., and so originally, I was cast as the clown in Othello, a role which is cut so often—and I think rightfully so, probably—cut so often that nobody knows such a character exists. He runs in and he makes some jokes to Desdemona and is quickly forgotten. But I was cast in that role, and that role was cut, so I didn’t have to go to the theater at night, but of course I did have to call in every night because I was understudying the role. It was my period then of reading the play and working on the play and trying to understand the play and study the play. And of course, I have to confess that still my journey of learning was very much in progress then. And there was at least for me, there was more of a notion of feeling that I needed to use my voice to play the role. Once again remembering Robeson’s great great voice. If you haven’t heard that recording I do recommend it, quite wonderful. But it was only when over the years, over a culmination of years and being in many Shakespeare plays, virtually all supporting roles, except Bottom the Weaver and Friar Lawerence in Romeo and Juliet, over many roles and many plays, I began to pick up on what his language was and what he was doing. And definitely with the play Othello, which I made cuts to the play myself. I made cuts to all the Shakespeare plays that I directed, recognizing that certainly in this day and age, and maybe unfortunately or fortunately as it may be, a college audience can’t sit for three hours or more. But on the other hand, I understand that. I accept that, and so I make cuts to the play always to get them down to two hours—which is easy to do actually. Easier than people might think because Shakespeare repeats himself so very much that there’s so many images, and allusions, as beautiful as they may be, which can be let go in favor of helping the show move along. By the time I directed Othello, I began to have a pretty good idea of what I thought about his plays and his work and his language, finding operative words and making sure the actors were very clear about what they were saying, very clear with the audience of words that we don’t understand or hear that often. 

And actually, I think that there was a question here related to it as far as the production itself. I chose a traditionally dressed production. We rented our costumes, our classical costumes, from the Gantry theater, and it looks quite, quite lovely. I’d be happy to send you some pictures. That’s my feeling about Shakespeare. I’ll have a lot more to say about that as we continue to talk.

Middleton: That sounds good. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Keith Hamilton Cobb’s American Moor, but I’m pretty sure you would be. In that book, he relates his experience being assigned, automatically assigned, to traditionally black roles in Shakespeare and feeling excluded from acting in other roles. Is there anything you felt that you didn’t have access to?

Parker: Many years ago, I was in another production of Fugard’s “Master Harold”…and the Boys. Do you know it? Wonderful, wonderful play. I was in another production of that particular play, South African play, at a theater company in Knoxville, TN on the campus of the University of Tennessee, Clarence Brown Theater—a very nice, professional theater company in residence on the campus. I was in that cast. Supposedly, I never met the artistic director. She was ailing near death at that point, but I had heard before I got there that supposedly she said that blacks can’t do Shakespeare, but I didn’t formally meet her or have a chance to challenge her on that, but my particular experience goes back to days when I was pounding the pavement in New York and occasionally there might be the notion of, the question of roles in terms of—and this is thirty years ago—in terms of casting regarding relatives—brothers and sisters, daughters, fathers, fathers and children, mothers and children, and feeling that those people, those characters, fathers, mothers in families, had to be of the same race. And therefore, since you were just beginning to grow in our perception of nontraditional casting, which nowadays there’s no need to call it that because it’s so prevalent, but we were just beginning to pick up on that. So there was still a lot of theater companies where it was virtually all white, or there would be black actors that would be in the company, in the production who would have to speak well. You had to speak well. An old truism years ago, you had to speak better than the white actors in order to even get considered. You had to speak well and also you had to be available for supporting character roles that were not related to anyone in the play, unless of course it was Othello or Morocco or Aaron where the roles were—or Caliban, Caliban became one of those parts as well—where the character’s race was either specifically part of the story, or they were of such, in the case of Caliban, they were of such circumstance that they were put upon by society and shun and all that kind of thing. 

I was able to work a great deal, but of course I was a character actor. Even when I was young, I was not going to play Romeo, no matter who I was. I wasn’t going to play Romeo in an all-black Romeo and Juliet. I was going to play Friar Lawrence which of course suited me quite fine. I was going to play Nick Bottom in Midsummer Night’s Dream. So in that regard, as far as type goes, there was a period there, where at least the sense that blacks need not applied, but long after the campaign from Actors Equity and a nontraditional casting project, and to this day, where multiracial, biracial casting, really, thankfully I would say, is the rule rather than the exception. And I would say that one reason why in my view you see this particularly in Shakespeare—Shakespeare at his best, absent of characters where it’s mentioned specifically. Those plays are about human interaction, ideas, love, hate and how people live in the world. It’s not about—the culture, the language, the circumstance is so far removed from our own daily circumstance that truly it is easy to believe and accept that a black male and a white woman can be brother and sister for instance. Or certainly, it’s a given! Romeo and Juliet by Rick, warring families. So happily we’ve come to a time now, certainly in classic theatre, and maybe even so in terms of contemporary plays as well. I know a few years ago there was a revival of Come Back, Little Sheba with S. Epatha Merkerson playing the lead role, a black actress playing the lead role with a white actor as her husband. James Earl Jones, years ago, a very acclaimed production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, playing Big Daddy, and he was the only black actor in the production. So much, much has improved!

Middleton: Looking back is there any role that you wish you would have played or any production that you wish you would have directed?

Parker: Well, I’m still hoping that there’s a chance! I’d like to direct Romeo and Juliet at some point because I know it so well. I’ve acted in it five times. I almost have it cut and edited in my head for two hours and I have all kinds of notions about what I would do with it. As far as roles, there was talk here at some point, and maybe not impossible in the relatively near future, of me doing Prospero in The Tempest. I would say because so much of my interest was and always had been, famous characters who are not love interests. Actually I do have a role I can mention: Falstaff in Henry IV Pt 1. I would love to play that role. I understudied a Falstaff years ago in North Carolina Shakespeare Festival. I understudied the role in a production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, but that’s a role that I would hope to play or haven’t had the chance to play. Maybe someday, but it’s out there.

Middleton: Can you say why you would choose that role?

Parker: Because the sensibilities, the language, the fun, putting on a fat suit. I just love the scrapes he got himself into, and how he talked his way into them, how he talked his way out of them. In that regard, I suppose, it’s not that far from Bottom the Weaver from Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I played twice as well. That’s why it comes to me.

Middleton: No, that’s a good answer. So we’ve kind of discussed your thoughts about the contemporary just with the introduction of biraciality and cross-casting. I’m wondering what changes are you hoping to see in future theatre and black engagement with theatre and Shakespeare?

Parker: More of it. That’s what I would like to see. I think there was a question here somewhere related to the question of adaptability, African Americans, all of that. Now again, by now I’ve had a long experience with Shakespeare. I’ve had a chance to evolve, and grow, and learn, and study the language and fall in love with the language, and what the plays do, and what the language says. And as such, it led me to write this book on acting Shakespeare which I mentioned to you in an email. I’ll bet that you could get a desk copy. But in the future of Shakespeare and African Americans, I see no limits. I see no impediments. The only thing that I would ever want from any Shakespearean actor, black or white or green or yellow or red or whatever, the only thing that I would ever want is clarity of speech. That’s a requirement! We must understand what the person is saying because so many of those words are strange to us, or foreign to us. We want vocal clarity but other than that, and this is also my feeling as well, Shakespeare really, I think, is quite available to African Americans because we too as a group are very literate and lyrical in our language. Very much in creating words, making up words. Pick up any dictionary of African American slang and that is going to be very much in league with Shakespeare who, supposedly, it is thought that he created 1700 words. And so, African Americans who understand the sounds of words and what the rhythm and pace, the syncopation of words, jazz and hip-hop, bebop, all of that is very much in the pace and rhythm of the ability to do Shakespeare.So that’s my feeling about African Americans acting Shakespeare’s plays.

Middleton: Do you have any advice for newcomers, people just starting? I know your book is literally called Acting Shakespeare is Outrageous! Playing the Bard for Beginners. Do you think you could tell us more about it, say what your intentions are—just any advice because I know that I’m just getting into Shakespeare now as a college student. 

Parker: Wonderful! Pick up a Shakespeare speech and read it out loud over and over and over again. For as long as possible don’t read those notes at the bottom of the page. Follow the punctuation religiously. Look at that stanza of iambic pentameter and be very careful to not stop at the end of that line if it isn’t stopped by punctuation. Keep going. You will—and it will take a while, it will take a moment, it will take more than a moment admittedly—but if you follow the punctuation and the sound and the shape of the words, you will learn what that character is trying to say. Well not trying to say but is saying. You will discover the brilliance of the shape of those words and it will be very clear why this brilliant writer created these words in this way so that his company of actors could learn their parts quickly to perform the play in front of an audience of 3000 people, on a stage with a hole in the roof. Punctuation. Out loud. Forget Stanislavski. There’s no Stanislavski. There’s no subtext in Shakespeare. Characters say what they mean and mean what they say. And they always tell the audience the truth. There’s no subtext in Shakespeare. Now I’m raving. You’ve got me started. There’s no subtext in Shakespeare. Now of course, this is the style of the plays then certainly. Obviously if you’re doing Tennessee Williams, if you’re doing Maggie the Cat in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, yes you’re going to be wanting to deal with the subtext, absolutely. But even that, I’ve discovered and this is what I’m so excited about as I continue to learn, being this strict about punctuation serves a contemporary play as well. I don’t know if you done any writing of your own, attempted a play or attempted a poem, but as you are writing and you’re putting words in your characters’ mouths, your ear is hearing something from your own heart and soul and life experience and that’s what you’re trying to put down on the page. And realizing it or not, wittingly or unwittingly, you are injecting that rhythm and pace into the words of your character as you write it down on the page just as Shakespeare did. But for anybody that wants to get started give this man a chance. Pick it up. Read it. Don’t prejudge it by thinking it’s so above our heads. Quite the opposite. Shockingly opposite is the case. It is so easy. So many times, you know that famous actor’s note from a director: Just say it. You know a actor is flailing and shouting, and finally the director says, “Just say it.” And that’s a very, very good note when dealing with the work of William Shakespeare. And so I’ve shouted and yelled and genuflected, but I want so much for young actors, absolutely young actors of colors especially. To discover and dig up his text. It’s not about a British accent. It’s about clarity of speech, yes. But more, it’s about punctuation and the sound of words. So, that’s my thought about that.

Middleton: And I think that’s a great thought to leave it on. I’m going to go ahead and stop the recording.

Scroll to Top