Black Shakespeare(ans) Database

Lindsay Smiling

Artist Profile by Zoe Torrey


LINDSAY SMILING is an actor/director/educator based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Career highlights include: Fat Ham (Wilma Theater), How to Catch Creation (Baltimore Center Stage/Philadelphia Theatre Co), Kill Move Paradise (Wilma Theater), Othello (Milwuakee Repertory Theater) and the Mojo and the Sayso (A Contemporary Theater). Other Regional credits include: Shakespeare Theatre of NJ, Lantern Theater, Arden Theater, Syracuse Stage, People’s Light and Theatre Co., New Light Theatre, Pittsburgh Public, Orbiter 3, Two River Theatre, Victory Gardens, Dorset Theater Festival, Santa Cruz Shakespeare, Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, Human Race Theatre, Curio Theater, Walnut Street Theater, Delaware Shakespeare, Illinois Shakespeare Fest., Arkansas Shakespeare Theater, Mixed Blood Theater, and Bristol Riverside Theatre. Lindsay is a member of the Wilma Theater’s HotHouse company, an Adjunct Professor at Temple University, and co-founder and steering committee member for the Black Theatre Alliance of Philadelphia.

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Full Interview Transcript


Torrey: I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about how you came to be interested in theater and how your racial identity or any other parts of your identity affected your consideration of acting. 

Smiling: Yeah. So, you know, I didn’t grow up going to theater at all. My mom’s a nurse. My dad’s an engineer. We didn’t go to any plays. I saw a couple in high school with touring things that go to high schools which I didn’t quite understand. Like I was just kind of just forced to go and didn’t really know what I was looking at. And I went to a community college – I didn’t know what I wanted to do – outside of Chicago, actually. I went to the College of DuPage and kind of searching for what was what was what I wanted to do. And a friend of mine was taking an acting class and I was taking a bunch of different classes just to experiment with different things like architecture and math and being a teacher and photography and a lot of different things. And I stumbled upon this acting class and found it really interesting because there were no easy answers. And I just was kind of intrigued by the stories and how there is no one answer to any of these stories. And I thought that was really intriguing. And so I kept taking these classes and I finished community college and went to Illinois State. And I still didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to keep taking theater classes and so I had to major in theater classes. So I majored in theater and I double majored in math because I was like math, I’m good at it, and, you know, there’s something with math. That’s what everybody tells me, tells you that, you know, there’s a career in math somewhere. I don’t know what it is, but still. Yeah, and that’s what really got me hooked is going to Illinois State. And you know, this kind of unanswerable question that theater always asks was really compelling to me and moved me forward. And I think as far as, like racial identity goes, that was interesting because there wasn’t a lot of… I didn’t see any plays, particularly about black people at College of DuPage or – they have a resident theater company – Buffalo Theater Ensemble. And I didn’t see any stories about me. So I was just kind of intrigued by the format of it. And it wasn’t until I went to Illinois State and I saw Flyin’ West by Pearl Cleage and I was like, oh, this is a story about black people. I kind of like, you know, I grew up in the suburbs and everything was white and like that was just what I saw and it was just the way it is. And so that was really kind of a pivotal moment in like kind of starting this journey to question my role in society where I fit in these stories, how I encounter narrative and that’s developed. That’s a continual journey in my career. So I think theater is a really great way to unpack that and unpack your identity and what shoulders you stand on and how you see going forward. Yeah. 

Torrey: Thank you. On the topic of finding yourself or not finding yourself in plays, what does it feel like for you to perform Shakespeare, particularly in contrast to maybe other more contemporary works or just non Shakespearean plays. Like is it a treat? Is it a chore or is it…what does it feel like? 

Smiling: Yeah, it’s been an interesting journey with Shakespeare because early on in my education, it’s just held up with such esteem. It’s kind of like the pinnacle of theater, but in a lot of education programs and and, you know, you kind of buy into that as a student because they’re teachers and they’re telling you what it’s supposed to be like. This is the excellence. And, you know, I have a total respect for the format and the poetry of it. And as I’ve gotten older in my career, I still enjoy performing Shakespeare. But I look at it with a different lens. I have a respect for the format, but I also have come to realize that a lot of our ideas about, or at least a lot of our contemporary culture around Shakespeare has to do with these Victorian ideas, which are extremely problematic and difficult for me to step into. And knowing that the plays weren’t written for me, weren’t written for my identity, going into this material is really empowering, actually, and to say that I can break it, I’m doing something different. And, you know, Shakespeare was doing that himself. He wasn’t doing what uh, there was no women in his plays. And he’s kind of breaking these norms there. So in a weird way, me kind of breaking Shakespeare is in his own kind of tradition, which took these stories and broke them apart. It’s never about Venice or Mantua or whatever city he populates, not about Rome. It’s about what’s happening in London at that time when he’s writing. And so for us to do theater in the very nature of theater is that it’s about now it’s about what’s happening. It is not about what happened in the past necessarily. It’s about how we see ourselves in today’s culture and how do we move through that today? And so it is you know, it took me a while to kind of get to that idea that this isn’t something that I have to live up to. You know, I don’t have to, like, go and say this is the right way to do Shakespeare. I have to look at it and say this is when it was written. There’s all this history that happened when Shakespeare wrote to. Now, how does that history inform what we put on stage today and what needs to be changed? What lens? How can taking this beautiful poetry and this beautiful political theater of its day, how do we update it? How do we make it ours as a country, as a world today? How do we make it ours? It’s the chore of it I’ll say. Working with people that are romantic about Shakespeare, they have an idea that it is supposed to be done a certain way. You’re supposed to wear certain costumes, you’re supposed to have certain inflections, you’re supposed to have certain dialects. And I’m not really interested in that. I’m interested in these really big political and human ideas that are in Shakespeare and he can handle us breaking it. He can handle us tearing it apart, rearranging things. And there’s a lot of precedence to that anyway. So. So, yeah. So. So I have you know, admittedly, there is there’s some trepidation when I get cast in a Shakespeare show, I have to have like some dialogue with a director to know what how do you approach the work if you’re looking to do I kind of call it museum theater like production with the doublets and hose and the purists have to be this accuracy. And I don’t think that’s the point of actually what Shakespeare intended. I think he was wrestling with a much more kind of abstract way, and I would love to approach it that way. And so I have some reverence for Shakespeare. I think it is that he is another person, like a playwright, like anybody else. But he has some very genius language in there and he has some really bad language as well that can go. We don’t need it. And so I think taking it off the pedestal and really wrestling it actually makes it better. 

Torrey: I love that answer, and that’s something I really enjoyed about the class that I’m taking right now. We do a lot with retellings of Shakespeare, so attempts to update Shakespeare. And one of the plays that we read, and I think I mentioned this in the questions that I sent to you, was American Moor, which was written by someone or an actor – I think his name is Keith Hamilton Cobb – who’s played Othello numerous times. And so in his play, it’s an actor contending with a white director. They’re the only two characters and the director is off stage, but it’s sort of wrestling with Othello’s significance within the Shakespearean canon as one of the few black characters, but also like his racialization and the stereotypes that emerge from Othello. And I know you’ve played Othello several times, so I was wondering if you have any reflections on that, especially because of Othello’s prominence as one of Shakespeare’s only black characters. And then I guess sort of in tune with what American Moor gets at about this sometimes fraught relationship between the white production world or a production world that is often white and the black actor who is brought in to play Othello. If there are any things that you wish production leaders understood about the role or any experiences that you’ve reflected on with that. 

Smiling: Yeah, I think yeah, I’ve run into Keith a couple of times in auditions actually back. Actually the first time I played Othello, I think he was slated to do it and didn’t do it for some reason and then I actually stepped in to do that. That’s amazing. Wow. Yeah. Yeah. It’s you know, I’ve done it a couple of times and I remember I’ll start with this way. I remember the first time I auditioned for it and it was for this theater company in Indiana somewhere. And this director, it was, you know, maybe 30s. White guy was directing it and he’s like he leaned in. He’s like, “this is a big part for you.” And you’re kind of like, you know, yeah. It was a weird kind of approach to an audition. It’s like I know it’s a big part. Like you don’t have to explain it to me. And then he was a real stickler for, like, scansion, and he’s like that. And I really wasn’t interested in that. And he was really after something and he called me back and I called my agent. I said, “I don’t think I want to work with this guy, I don’t think” and I wasn’t really getting a ton of work at that time. So it was kind of like a, you know, kind of like pull out of this audition for Othello. And that that really was kind of an impetus, a change in my relationship to Shakespeare at that point, particularly with Othello. And then when I approached it the first time, yeah, it’s a very… it can be a very lonely experience if you’re in an all, you know, an all white institution, not just the production, but usually it’s an all white institution with the Shakespeare companies, at least at that time. And and so, you know, you kind of get pulled psychologically in a lot of ways between what’s going on in the play and what’s happening in real life. And I think for anybody wanting to do it now, I think that particularly for white institutions, is to know that this character is not written for a black actor – like it wasn’t written for a black actor. It was written for somebody in blackface. And to understand that is…. Just because you put a black body on stage doesn’t mean you’re telling their story, it doesn’t mean you’re embracing their history or their journey. And so I think if you have the only one character playing, the only black character, black actor playing Othello – which doesn’t have to be – know that you have to really listen to that person. You have to really honor that person. And I think most recently I was about to do a production and before the pandemic hit, actually, I was just about to open another production here in Philadelphia. And I really worked hard on it because I had come into it with trepidation. I was like, I’m not sure these people really get what’s going on with this character. And I had to do a lot of extra work too. You know, to look at the larger picture of what is happening in that place and that it is a whole system that is against the fellow, and it is not just the organized machinations that causes him to go crazy. It’s a whole system of not being trusted and. You know, when the Duke says he’s far more fair than black, like how messed up of a compliment that is and how that can really put anybody off kilter. So, yeah, I think for anybody approaching. That play particularly, I think, you know, you really have to be, again, careful not to. To kind of to put it on a pedestal again, like you really have to break it down and and say like this is there are a lot of things wrong with this play, because I think a lot of people when I actually did that production, the director talk to me is like, this is a perfect play and it is so not a perfect play. Here are reasons why. Here is… you don’t want people to root for Iago like that. What always gets me is people have this kind of titillation with Iago’s machinations and what he’s doing and they kind of enjoy it in a way. And that’s really difficult to deal with for a black actor being asked to go through this huge range of emotions from absolute love to destruction. And. Yeah, so it’s fraught. It has potential to reveal a lot of what we’re dealing with today, but you have to really look at it in order to do that. 

Torrey: Thank you. Yeah, we read a really interesting article that compared Othello to Get Out, Jordan Peele’s movie, and made this argument about sort of the psychological harm done by structures of white supremacy and how you can trace similar things between the the brain like lobotomy process in Get Out that’s inflicted on the the black victims and what is done Othello psychologically. But, yeah, that’s…

Smiling: That’s just great! I want to – I wish I took that class… we didn’t even have that…

Torrey: It’s an amazing class. And the professor’s amazing too. So on the topic, I guess sort of breaking out of, you know, putting Shakespeare on a pedestal. Can you tell me a little bit about your production of Fat Ham? Yeah, I guess it’s the opposite of keeping Shakespeare to its normal place. And then also, I guess, more more generally, how does it feel to exist in a space where Shakespeare’s reimagined and where he’s changed? 

Smiling: Yeah, it’s I mean, it’s been done in a lot of different ways. Fat Ham is such an extraordinary, extraordinary piece of writing by James Ijames. And he yeah, he took the story of Hamlet and, you know, the structure of it and said, well, what does it look like today? What does it look like if it’s black and queer? And I think it’s extraordinary because it takes these these younger characters of, you know, the equivalent of Horatio and Hamlet and Ophelia and and Laertes and and and asked them to choose, I think, “pleasure over violence,” I think is one of the lines that is said in the play. And I just think that that’s so right on and what black people need to see, but also just what the world needs to see about breaking the cycle of violence. Not everybody ends up dead at the end of the play. And the people that end up dead aren’t because somebody else killed them. It’s just they literally choked on their own, on their own cooking, if you will. So, yeah. And so working on that play was so extraordinary because the the sentiment behind, I think, what Shakespeare was wrestling with and, you know, what do you do with your you know, when you’re the older generations, your parents, your family is causing you trauma and how do you go away from that? And what courage do you need to do that? And I think that’s such a beautiful sentiment given this recognizable structure of Hamlet and, you know, Hamlet’s a beautiful play in its own way, and this takes a much more, I think, beautiful look at it, a much more joyful look at possibility. And, you know, there’s a big dance party at the end. So I think that that’s wonderful. I don’t know. I don’t know if you’ve got a chance to see it, but yeah, there is definitely the toxicity of an uncle marrying your mother. And coming from a kind of violent world of violence, which Hamlet is all about – something that isn’t often portrayed as how much military action, how much war is happening in Hamlet, the story of invaders and Denmark and Norway and that cycle of violence. And this takes it really makes it even more domestic than that and puts it in the backyard. And you get to have all the humor of a black cookout and the tragedy, but also the possibility and pleasure of choosing a more constructive way out of that cycle of violence. 

Torrey: I’m excited to watch it. I’ve seen the trailer, I haven’t seen it yet. Well, yeah, great. That’s great to hear about. It sounds, I mean, really cool. It sounds awesome. So my final question for you, and I feel like you’ve touched on this a little bit, but if you could control the theater world, if you could control what plays are being put on and what actors were being asked to do, would you make Shakespeare continuously relevant? Would you keep him around and keep his plays around? And I guess sort of your explanation of that? Why or why not? And then if your answer is yes, in what form would you want Shakespeare to be around? 

Smiling: Yeah, I mean, I think I think Shakespeare can be relevant. I don’t think he’s always relevant. I think the sheer number of Shakespeare productions is probably a bit too many. We don’t have other… we’re not… we don’t have a ton of other like companies just devoted to one playwright. I mean, we just don’t have that. We don’t have the August Wilson Theater and every or the August Wilson Festival. In every state, there’s pockets of it, but it’s nowhere near as extensive as it is with Shakespeare. So I think I would… I think there is some value in still producing Shakespeare. Absolutely. I think there needs to be other room for what we consider classics and what we consider the canon and what we hold up as masterpieces, because, yeah, there’s some really good masterpieces in Shakespeare, but they’re not all masterpieces, not not by a long shot. So I would still produce Shakespeare. I would definitely want to do things like Fat Ham and take it and rework it. And a lot of people still continue to do that. I would love to see, you know, if we were all these Shakespeare companies, I’d love to see them, you know, embrace more adaptations like Fat Ham, where maybe they invite playwrights to say this is what we’re doing. What is your version of the Scottish play or what is your version of or even whatever classics we have now or something new, or what are the classics from your culture, whatever that may be? And to kind of embrace that in what would be a Shakespeare in theaters now? I think there are a few places doing that, like Oregon Shakespeare feels like they’re really pushing the envelope with what is done with Shakespeare and what other productions they want to do in their season, which I think is really fantastic. And I think a lot of other Shakespeare theaters are doing that as well. They’re starting to branch out, but it’s kind of this European canon of Jane Austen and which is great is fine. But yeah, open it up to, you know, the Mahabharata. You are doing some other ancient text. Yeah. That would be my dream is to see your Shakespeare theaters embrace… kind of change into a World Classic Theater as opposed to London Classic Theater.

Torrey: I would love to see that too. So hopefully you get the reins of the theater world sometime soon and can make that happen. OK, I’m going to stop the recording.

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