Black Shakespeare(ans) Database

Mlondi Zondi

Artist Profile by Fatoumata Magassa


Currently an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for the Humanities at Wesleyan University, Mlondolozi (Mlondi) Zondi is a scholar and interdisciplinary artist whose research focuses on contemporary Black performance and art history. Zondi’s academic research focuses on contemporary black performance and visual art engagements dealing with death and corporeal integrity. Probing the relationship between black ontology and the ontology of performance, by using Afro-Pessimism and other aspects of the black radical tradition, Zondi’s interests are in dance dramaturgy, curatorial practice, and pedagogy.

Mlondi completed a PhD in Performance Studies at Northwestern University (with certificates in Critical Theory, African Studies, and Gender and Sexuality Studies). The dissertation project received support from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. Prior to attending Northwestern, Mlondi received an M.F.A in Dance as a Fulbright scholar at the University of California, Irvine; and a BA (Hons) cum laude in Cultural Studies and Performance Studies from the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal in South Africa.

Currently, Mlondi is working on a book project titled Unmournable Void, a study of critical artistic practices that tend to the historical conditions of anti-black violence resulting from transatlantic slavery, colonialism, and apartheid. The manuscript approaches questions of matter, mourning, and ontological absence through an engagement with revolutionary Black thought, psychoanalytic theories, art history/visual studies, and dance/performance theory. 

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Full Interview Transcript


Magassa: So would you mind providing for the people listening or watching a brief overview of just your educational background, your current role at the university and any current projects of yours.

Zondi: So now I’m doing a postdoctoral fellowship at Wesleyan University. I’m in Connecticut, at the Center for the Humanities. And prior to that, I completed my PhD in Performance Studies at Northwestern. And prior to that, I got an MFA in dance, actually, I’m from the University of California Irvine, which I did as a Fulbright Scholar. And then, that all happened after I worked in South Africa, but also studied there, where I got my Bachelor’s Degree in Media and Cultural Studies, as well as Drama and Performance Studies. And when I got the degree, that was actually my first time pursuing the theatrical arts period. I mean, in high school, I sang in the choir. But in terms of just like, my involvement in the Dramatic Arts, whether through practice or history criticism, that work really began in undergrad at the University of Kwazulu Natal in South Africa. And it was kind of a mistake. Because I was going to major in media studies and psychology, and attended one psychology lecture, and I was like, This is nice. But I ended up in the, in the theater in the theater department, because I mean, another major, I was trying to pursue English. And I took one semester of English. And then the second semester, two departments were offering like a similar, like, introductory course, as in like, the readings were quite similar. And I was like, do I want to read Othello in the theatre department, or the English department. And I went with the theater department and I haven’t looked back ever since.

Magassa: That’s great, Um, and then the other part of that question is just are there any current projects of yours, that you’re willing to share?

Zondi: You know, it’s been hard with, you know, with COVID, because a lot of projects that I was thinking of doing, you know, kind of took a backseat. And so then because, you know, I have to work from home. My concentration is now, I mean at least for the past year, has been invested in just more reading, and writing and trying to produce more academic work.

Magassa: You kind of answered my next question a little bit. But I love to know, like, what sparked your interest in studying dance and black performance in particular? And maybe, how some of your childhood or early adulthood experiences or what you do now?

Zondi: You know, the interesting thing about dance is that a lot of Black people who have trained in dance have a somewhat contentious relationship with the field, especially with the training, because a lot of people start dancing with they’re three and they, you know, they go through the training, some of it in ballet. And of course, it’s all about discipline and discipline means so many different things, for so many different teachers training them. And so what that means is that they actually sometimes develop this kind of contentious, fraught relationship with dance, even as they continue to pursue it and find ways of practicing dance that undo a lot of the trauma that is associated with the training. But with me, because I didn’t have any of the training, and I trained in dance within the theater department. So there was no focus, no rigorous focus on technique or a technique. And so the training was just in physical and, and more sort of creative devised experimental movement, which was honoring the practice without marrying it too much through discipline and punishment, and that sort of thing. So I never went through some of the more traumatic things that are associated with dance training, because my, my introduction to dance training was through an approach that was very much trying to undo those things. And that’s what got me interested in dance, and then, of course, it was interesting to me that you’re an undergrad, but we would go and see a dance, it was very interesting to me that I didn’t understand. Like, I didn’t take that as something that was bad. It just made me more curious that like, something that could be called the language of dance was something that I did not have access to, was I was slightly frustrated. But also curious. I made it a point to actually pursue the practice, and history and theorization so that I would be able to sit with a dance, movement work, and not so much take it apart in terms of what it means. But in terms of what it does in the world and to the world. What does it enact? What, what kind of sensibility does it inaugurate or encourage?

Magassa: But I’d love to know, like, what does the term black Shakespeare or Black Shakespearean mean to you? through your experiences?

Zondi: Yeah, I mean, to be honest, I don’t know. Not because I haven’t thought about it. But because I think whenever I think about it, it always changes. I mean this is the thing. You know, I have an academic practice, and mode practice and practice based investment. And it’s not that those two things don’t mix. But it’s just that the place where I think about Shakespeare the most is not really in my my academic work. It’s in my practice based work. And so going back to question I do think about what makes something that we call Shakespeare or a black approach to Shakespeare, but to me, I think that probably gestures towards something that is not… what comes to my mind is not just an an exclusive investment in black representation in Shakespeare. Although I think that is important. I think it is important for for black people to be representative if that’s what they want to do, to be represented in these Shakespeare production. But for me, Black Shakespeare is more than just about representation. It’s about being very thoughtful about what blackness is and what blackness brings and blackness is not just as an identity category. But blackness is also a way of knowing, moving sensing as a sensibility, and posture and orientation in the world maybe. So to me, to me a term like Black Shakespeare is not about representation, but it’s about like, how do you actually introduce these urgent, black questions that help us read Shakespeare differently. Not just differently, but also in ways that maybe have not been attended to before.

Magassa: You did talk about how you’re usually interacting with Shakespeare through practice. So I was wondering if you have any experiences or really any ideas about like, what that part of it means to be black and also produce or practice the plays.

Zondi: So, you know, I actually, you know, participated, I mean, in undergrad, I think I participated in two, like, full length, Shakespeare productions. I played Ariel in The Tempest, and I played Bianca in The Taming of the Shrew. So, in terms of just like more straightforward theater productions of Shakespeare I’ve been in, those are the two. And the experience was great. And I say it was great, not just because it’s just fun to do, but also because after those experiences, I had a lot of questions about Shakespeare, about questions of race, and sex, gender, and so many questions about that. And I started thinking about how do I pose these questions in a way that I think gets close to not answering them, but attending to them in a way that reduces the amount of violence in the representation itself. And so, for me, I had to find ways of dealing with these questions and of being in conversation with William Shakespeare, in ways that are not sort of straightforward dialogue. I didn’t want to actually direct I don’t know Othello, because it was important for me to work in a language that was a little bit more disjointed, and also almost uncertain. And chaotic. You know, we always think of chaos as having negative negative connotations, because, you know, it suggests an arrangement that is just all over the place, but I actually find a lot of potential in the chaotic, but also the fragmented, because I think that black people and our history, there’s a kind of fragmentation that defines certain aspects of our being. And it’s important for me to choose a mode of staging where you can see that we can see that fragmentation, where you can see not intelligible thoughts and words. But chaos and disjointedness. One more important thing I’m going to say about this is, in my work, and in my approach to Shakespeare, when I these works, I’m not so much interested in characters. Because that when you train as an actor, one of the things that you have to think about is each characters narrative arc, and their psychological state, and what motivates them to act in a certain way. I’m not interested in individual characters at all. But I do think with them as serving a more collective function, in helping us to think about something more structural. And so if I’m thinking with and about Caliban, I’m not just thinking about that character, and his psychological drama in his interiority, that’s not what I’m thinking about. I’m thinking about what does it mean? What is the function of Caliban? And how does “Caliban-ness” What does it look like in the world now? And how do we interact with “Caliban-ness” in our world right now? And is our response to “Caliban-ness” very different from how someone like Prospero responds to Calibanin the play. So it’s important for me to actually not centralize individual characters in the integrity in this individual narrative arcs. But to also think about, like the kind of collective things that they help us think about.

Magassa: Yeah, sorry, my questions are all like theoretical and big. But I did have another question.
So we have some Shakespeare plays that portrayed Black characters. Othello, The Tempest, Antony and Cleopatra, Titus Andronicus. So then I have two questions. How do you think they’ve shaped Western ideas about blackness? So how do you think the Shakespeare plays and characters play a role in just ideas and conceptions of what it means to be black and racial struggles? And then my second question is just about how can we perform those black characters and plays today? You touched upon that a little bit just now.

Zondi: Let me actually respond to the first one first, which is about like all these sort of post colonial takes and thank you so much for that list. And I’m going to try and spend the summer reading most if not all of them. But to answer your question I think the one that I’ve been thinking with is Aime Cesaire’s A Tempest, which is what helped me create the piece that was performed at the Museum of Contemporary Art. And of course, Cesaire is doing so many things in that version or rewriting of The Tempest. But one thing that stood out to me was Ariel, you know, this time around, because this engagement is sustained. So I’ve done iterations of this elsewhere. And this time, I really actually wanted to concentrate on Ariel, not as an individual character, but “Ariel-ness.” And what that means and what that describes in terms of blackness. And for Cesaire, he seems to be interested with the figure of the black “sell out” for lack of a better word or collaborator. The black that actually knowingly collaborates or colludes with the master, and the master narrative, and the master’s institutions, and identifies with them. But also someone who will actually like, partake in quelling black rebellion. “Aerial-ness” is something that is very interesting to me, what does it mean to actually be black but be acting in ways that postpone the kinds of necessary rebellions that need to be happening. And what does it mean, to have invested in and participating in the work of global Empire? And, of course, black people know exactly what I’m talking about him actually need to, like, give you a list of names that I was thinking with and about while this was happening. I think we can see where global and specifically US imperialism is now and how it does not not have black faces. So what does it mean to think about the number of ways in which for some black people survival looks like participating in the machinations of Empire. And I think Cesaire gave us was something interesting to help us think about these questions.

Magassa: My next question, which is going to be about your production “is called the most efficient,
most collegial negro in the whole entire world” But I would love to know a little bit about the origins of the project. Why the tempest? Any struggles along the way? And then maybe like, what were your ultimate goals? Or what you hope the audience would see or gain?

Zondi: Like I said, I’ve done two iterations. And it’s hard for me to even call these like, evening
length standard performances, because I think that it’s part of the process that is not finished. So I did an iteration of the Tempest which looks very different from the video that I showed you, in Cape Town. I haven’t received the video yet, but I will send you the pictures of that, which was more of the kind of installation piece that again, was not trying to think with or about individual characters. But I was really trying to think seriously about territory in that it was called “Tetra Nullius,” which was a play on words, on the term “Terra Nullius” that suggests that Africa is this kind of blank slate without history, which of course is false. So I was really trying to think about like these questions of territory, in Cape Town in a settler colony. And then I did a second iteration in Chicago, actually, at Access Lab, which is right under the Argyle red line stop on the north side. And what I was thinking very seriously about “Prospero-ness.” Not necessarily just Prospero the character, but the function of “Prospero-ness.” And then the MCA iteration was thinking about questions of collaboration, so I found really great collaborators. I worked with Joelle who did the sound for the piece. I worked with Zack who is a performer. And I was also very deliberate about working with people where we could sit and sort of process. It was very interesting because what people see in MCA, you know, they think that that’s the final product. But in fact, the whole thing was the performance, including the rehearsals, that was all part of the process, because I was working with these two black performers. One of them has West African and Caribbean heritage. And the other one is of Caribbean heritage, and it just made sense to me reading Cesaire. And they were excited about reading Cesaire and some others of Caribbean literature. We read the Tempest, of course, but we also read some poetry and we wrote a lot. We did a lot of writing exercises. Some of which still exists in my personal archive. Yeah. So the practice then becomes not about getting ready for performance on the whatever date in January. But that every time we show up, that is part of the practice, and there is no hierarchy between process and product. But at the same time, it’s not like this fetishization of process.

Magassa: Yeah, I was interested in knowing a little bit more about the origin of the project and then
your goals and what you’re hoping to get out of it. Did you have any struggles throughout this process?

Zondi: Not so much. To answer your question about like how this came about, it came about as a response to certain struggles I had when I participated in theatrical productions of The Tempest on The Taming of the Shrew. Those struggles were what drove the creation of this series. Because when I did the theatrical productions or acted in them, there was a lot that was great. But there was also some struggles. And I wanted to create this work in order to attend to those things that made me feel uneasy before. I wanted to get at what exactly it was, and it was important for me to actually work in a language that was very fragmented
and unintelligible at times. And actually taking apart the language itself and being very deliberate about talking about the role of language in colonialism which is also something that I think Cesaire helps us understand and see the language bit. There’s a fabulous line, Caliban at some point in one of his confrontations with Prospero in the Shakespeare play, responds to Prospero and he says, and I quote, “you taughtme language, and my profit on ’t Is I know how to curse” and that line really just drew alot of what we actually ended up doing. And so, what you see in the clip that I showed you is this attempt to like work with language and of course, language is, is always slipping away. But at the same time, language is also being used to carry out the work of domination, the domination of Africa.

Magassa: So you had mentioned, Cesaire’s rework or rewriting and Shakespeare’s play. There’s obviously been a lot. I have a long list: Toni Morrison, Janet Sears, Derek Walcott, Lolita Chakrabarti, Benard Jackson. You said the Cesaire one stood out to you. But I was just wondering if there are any others or what it made you realize about yourself, society or blackness? You touched upon blackness, I think.

Zondi: I’m very interested in people who write things in response to, obviously, that’s important. I
have a work that’s trying to be in conversation with Cesaire. But I think I like responses or interpretations or remakings of Shakespeare that have no words, that are a lot more experimental or that exists in dance. Dada Masilo is a South African choreographer who also has worked with Shakespeare, also Greek tragedy and the western canon. I think she does really interesting things that get me excited about what it means to do this work and actually honor the gravity of the work while placing language under scrutiny. I would say Dada Masilo, there seems to be a certain sort of black feminist sensibility that is going on there that I find interesting. To answer the very first question that you posed about what I’m working on. Maybe I can take this moment and to say a little bit about what I had to put away during this period. And it’s pretty much like the next iteration of this project, which is thinking about and with Sycorax, Caliban’s mother in the tempest. I’m very excited about that. So that’s what I’ve just been thinking about and reading around. And Sycorax is very interesting because she does not appear in the play, she gets talked about. Prospero has a moment where he’s talking to Ariel about Sycorax. And he’s pretty much just telling Ariel to remember that he, Prospero rescued Ariel when Ariel was tied to a tree by Sycorax and then died. She gets brought up by Caliban a couple of times. One of them being that speech where he’s like “This island’s mine by Sycorax, my mother, Which thou tak’st from me. When thou cam’st first, Thou strok’st me… All the charms of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you, For I am all the subjects that you have, Which first was mine own king; and here you sty me In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me the rest o’ th’ island.” So what I’m excited about in this iteration is Sycorax is this absent presence in the tempest, that just gets talked about. And some black feminists have written about this and I’m thinking about Abena Busia’s article “Silencing Sycorax” How do you think what Sycorax and again, not just the individual character, but “Sycorax-ness” When you’re dealing witha absent presence in the play, which might help us think about how that woman is absent in everyday material and discourse. So those are the things that I’m going to be thinking with, in relation to say, “Sycorax-ness.” Things that are related to absence or absent presence. And the maternal trace. Because what’s interesting as I’m doing this research, for example, when you Google Sycorax, there are representations of Sycorax. I don’t know how you came up with those representations. Because how do you know? And so what I’m trying to mark is actually the violence of representation. In representing Sycorax, I’m not saying people shouldn’t do it, but what has to be further absented for you to come to that type of figuration. I find it interesting that when you Google Sycorax there are images of Sycorax, I don’t know how you know what she looks like. And so in this work, there will be no Sycorax as a figure. And I understand the potential violence of that, or the contradiction, because I’m naming and absenting, but I’m also not representing Sycorax. I choose to actually not have Sycorax on stage, which some might argue well, but you’re also participating in the absenting. The point is for us to think seriously about the violence that is repeated through figuration and representationalism. Sycorax is already an absent presence and any attempt to represent Sycorax through figuration would just be people’s projections on Sycorax, and not what or who Sycorax is. So in order to visually represent Sycorax, you have to like actually project your own investments and might not have anything to do with Sycorax at all. But it’s just something that you cooked up, which I think can also be very violent. And that’s why I choose to think about “Sycorax-ness,” rather than Sycorax, the character.

Magassa: My next question was just about black women and their bodies and how they’re like, uniquely disadvantaged. And then I remember when I was researching you, I found this paper. I don’t know if it’s released, but it’s called “Domestic Servitude, the Ruse of Care”. So I would love if you could elaborate a bit on that.

Zondi: That’s a work in progress. And so in that paper, I’m thinking about domestic servitude in two or three ways. One, domestic servitude in visual artistic representation, two domestic servitude in the world. Just what women have to wake up at 6am and go and wash the dishes and clean houses and take care of the employers children. It’s not a new argument, but to re emphasize the kind of slavery aspects of that. That domestic service, or at least the way that it appears in South Africa, is a continuation rather than a break from master- slave relations. And then three, I’m trying to think about critical theory broadly construed, and specifically how the work, the theoretical labor of black women is put in service to kind of clean up, you know, problems or even problems with America. This is the expectation to not read Black people but specifically Black woman’s work in a way that our patient. There is a way in which sometimes that work is cited or used to clean up people’s mess. And that’s what I’m interested in. And then in terms of Shakespeare, the question of gender has always been important, but specifically, Black women. That’s why I’m doing this for Sycorax, it would be more specific?

Magassa: I just have one last question. So you did an interview back in 2014. Saying that, I think it
was related to the fellowship you did. But you said that you hope to bridge the gap between art and activism, and bring art to individuals who otherwise may not have access to it. My question is just how do you see your research, your art, as it relates to events of the past year?

Zondi: I think that there’s a way in which the art itself becomes a stand in for the activism. And I don’t find that relationships symbiotic. I actually find it very parasitic on the work that is being done by black people in the streets, literally risking their lives. And how dare we come in as artists to replace that and say that activism is my painting now? I’m not saying that it is not. I think it becomes a problem when we talk about our work as activism in ways that actually end up usurping or suppressing the kinds of unnecessary rebellions that are happening in the streets. I cannot prescribe to artists what to do. Because that takes a lot of hubris to claim to know what artists should be doing. But I do think that it’s important to think about these questions and the role of our work, in taking apart these questions, and exposing certain things about our society, in ways where we don’t end up endowing our work with these magical qualities, because our work can only do so much. It has its limitations. And then sometimes limitations have to do with like, the venue, like where the work is presented. It is already compromised. But also, I’ve seen how institutions are increasingly being forced to think about issues of race, and blackness in particular. But at the same time, I don’t think we should stop at celebration. Because there’s a way in which institutions are also trying now to capitalize on the labor and activists and capitalize on the people who are constantly being murdered. And so I don’t think that the work is done, I think that institutions like theatrical and otherwise, still need to think very seriously about like how to respond to these problems of anti blackness and not just a representation. Because another thing about representation is sometimes it creates this idea or feeling that all of this racial brutality is happening elsewhere. It’s happening elsewhere and you can come into the theater and experience something different and transformational. The regime of murder and brutality are actually not outside of the theater. Those logics also fester inside the theater. So it’s a problem for me when we reflect on race and racial brutality as something that is happening that we come in as thespians. I think that institutions are part of the problem. And it’s important to actually reflect on how they contribute to the problem, as opposed to explicitly focusing on how they are responding to the problem through the arts. You’re not just responding to the problem. You’re constantly creating it.

Magassa: Yeah, those were all the questions I had for you. Thank you!

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