Black Shakespeare(ans) Database

Tamiko Steele

Artist Profile by Kree Middleton


Tamiko Steele graduated from Tennessee State University with a degree in Speech Communication & Theater. Her Shakespearean acting credits include: Titania/Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the chorus in Henry V, and Olivia in Twelfth Night with the Nashville Shakespeare Festival. Outside of theatre she acts in film, television and commercial work, films include: Billy Senese’s The Dead Center, Rashaad Santiago’s Enuattii, Jason Berg’s Black Holler, Simon Werdmuller von Elgg’s Lemons, Rob Chepliki/Motke Dapp’s The Upside of Down and Kogonada’s Late Summer.

Contact Information

McCray Agency, LLC: (615) 742-4277


Full Interview Transcript


Middleton: How would you say you originally became interested in Shakespeare? Was your first encounter memorable?

Steele: No. No, it wasn’t. I’m sure my first encounter was in high school. I don’t even remember what they had us reading, what specific show it was. Yeah, I don’t remember anything about it, but I’m sure we read at least one of the plays in a English class or something like that in high school. I think, I mean my first memorable experience with Shakespeare—I really couldn’t’t tell you early, youth-wise. But I know it wasn’t until I was of age in college where we had to read and do some classical work. And so, I was a theater major, a speech com—speech communications major in college. So, I’m sure we did some scene work and things like that. And it was cool, you know, but it wasn’t anything stand out. 

Right after I graduated college, or maybe I was in my senior year of university, that the late-great legend Barry Scott, he hosted this workshop and so the actors had to—and it was a great, and it was a bunch of people who maybe weren’t actors so to speak but just happened to be doing this workshop, why I have no idea, but Barry Scott was good at that, at bringing people in, it was this emerging thing that he kind of did. And it was just so incredible to get people engaged and comfortable and confident in a language that, you know is English, but in a language so to speak that they were unfamiliar with. So that was probably either senior year of university or right after graduation where we had to in that workshop do a contemporary piece and a classical piece and I was green, honey, green green green. My classical piece was from Midsummer and it was Puck, and I was this wiry, fiery kid, and I remember some of those days, because I think it was maybe a week or two week long period of time that specific workshop where we workshopped with him and we kind of got into the language of the pieces and what they were about and who we are and all of that kind of stuff. And then we had a performance at the end of the workshop period. And so I remember doing Puck and I had never thought about Shakespeare like that as being accessible, and so in that instance, it was accessible. I understood. It wasn’t so out of reach—all of that means accessible. But that was my first memorable experience into the Shakespearean world.

Middleton: No, that makes sense because I’m just now getting into it, and I’m a senior. So, I understand that. So how would you say your relationship to Shakespeare has evolved over all this time? I know you have so much experience. 

Steele: Not as much as a lot of other people, but the evolution of who I am and where I am as an actor from when I first started, it has leaped in bounds as far as understanding the technical aspects where I’ve been involved and actually in-staged productions of Shakespeare. You know, I’m still on the learning curve. And I think as an artist and as an actor, you have to constantly be working—and this is just as a person in general, no matter what field you’re in—but working in general to shift with the times, to take some of the what makes Shakespeare so great, even now with the colorfulness of the language and how it kind of moved you and just how beautiful the words were. So I’m still on that train currently, but as a spectator, and just as a person who appreciates what that language is. I feel like I have, my understanding of the language has evolved. 

And this is kind of going into one of the other questions that you asked, but my first show, professional show, was Twelfth Night, and I was cast as Countess Olivia, and what a lot of people don’t know, and that was only about maybe five or six years ago, the same season maybe like months before, I’d just done that exact same role. Did I know what the hell I was doing? Absolutely not. But I had just done that exact same role with the community theater. That was like crazy, right? The people who were in it were nuts and insane. I had an amazing time. It was just a discovery period for me as an actor coming out of college, and you know and being like, “Wait, I can do anything!” It was like that whole kind of thing. And so, when I got on the professional stage with that, I still had no clue now, I should cringe at some of the choices that I’ve made as an artist, and some of the things that I’ve done. And I’ve said this a couple of times to good friends, I should be embarrassed by some of the things that I’ve done, but I’m not because of who I am. I learned so much from everything that I’m not embarrassed by my learning curve. But from that specific show, that first show that I did with Nashville Shakespeare Festival, I still had young people coming up to me, and now those young people are grown. They’re probably your age and graduating from university, but I had them coming up to me years after going, “Oh my god! You were the princess, the black princess!” And I didn’t think about it at the time about being a black woman in roles that were traditionally played by white men. I didn’t think about it in that instance, but I am so grateful, so grateful that I got to be that representation to a lot of people that looked like me, who had never seen themselves on stage especially in shows like that before. Sorry, I kind of like…

Middleton: No, it’s actually a perfect segue because you’re talking about your experience influencing as a black woman, but how would you say that being a black woman has influenced your career in theater or with Shakespeare? Has it been impacted by gender, by race, however? 

Steele: I mean absolutely! Especially where I am—I’m in the South! I’m in the southeast part of the United States. Abso-freaking-lutely! The black actors here had a running joke, and this not only for the Shakespeare companies but just all of the companies in general, and this was maybe about 10-12 years ago. It was a running joke that we knew we would work in February because it was Black History Month. And so, the black show, and I don’t know if they, white minds, thought that they were doing us a good service or something like that, but we knew we would work in February, right. And then there was always this whole thing about what it was gonna be. It was either an enslaved person, someone in servitude, or some downtrodden, “I need what the white man has” kind of thing. And that went on for years and probably even before I came onto the scene that was prevalent. I talk about Barry Scott, he was a phenomenal actor. He just passed in 2020. Amazing actor and teacher and mentor. And he was a black man, came up in Nashville. He was from Nashville. I didn’t realize him, another older black actor here, Jackie Welch Slicker, and then Connie, they were all these—as I know in my generation, I looked to them and I’m like, man, they are phenomenal actors, directors, singers, right. And I talked to them. I worked with one of them a couple of years ago. We were in A Raisin in the Sun together, me and Jackie Welch Slicker. I was talking to her, and there was a picture. They were putting older pictures on the wall from like 20 seasons ago, on the walls with that particular company where we were working. And I was like, “Oh my god! Look at you guys! Look how young y’all are, how vibrant. Y’all must’ve done so many shows, and they were like, “mhm.” And I didn’t know what that meant until we talked later. And it was later—sorry I keep looking around because I’m in a parking lot—but we talked later. It was because, yes, they had been cast in shows, but they were often in the ensemble and never like with a lead role of things. And I thought that was so bizarre to me because of who I knew they were and the talent I knew they had. And I could just about imagine what they, you know, thirty years ago, the vibrant energy they had with youth, right. And so that broke my heart. It broke my heart because I’m thinking these people had come up working, so anyway, I say that to say the scene is slowly changing. The companies themselves are evolving. It’s a, you know, slow process, but it is better now than it had been. But yeah, so I cannot remember what your original question was. 

Middleton: No, just your experience as a black woman in theater. 

Steele: Oh, yeah. Yeah, so evolving, and I was always one of those types of people who, I didn’t ask for— I just walked into a door, right. And I’ve been very fortunate that way as well as a black actor. And I’ve been fortunate enough to have black friends who are actors, playwrights, and company owners. They have their own, they form their own companies where I got to work and kind of get my licks in as a young actor before I was cast on the professional stages. So yeah, it’s slowly evolving with most of the companies here. I’m grateful for that, but it wasn’t always like that.

Interviewer: It’s making me think—I’m not sure if you’re familiar with American Moor by Keith Hamilton Cobb, but in it he kind of talks about how he’s automatically assigned to traditionally black roles like Othello and not having access to other non-black roles. Are there any roles that you think you didn’t have access to because of this? 

Steele: Me, specifically? No, and I just say that because again I came out of the gate as freaking Countess Olivia, right, a freaking princess. So, not really, but I will say like I auditioned for those companies here, the professional companies here, at these companies for maybe 8 years before I got cast in anything. And I’m not saying—maybe I wasn’t ready as an actor to be cast, like who knows what all of that is, but I worked my ass off for eight years before I was even cast in an equity show. And you know, mind boggling the amount of time that I put in and crafted to be able to get myself in a position to where my first show I would be cast as the countess. Now, do I think that there’s enough representation on these stages? No. They’re still heavily produced by white men and women, and often times, people don’t realize that I am so used to walking in a room and being one of the only, right. They don’t have to think that way, and so I don’t think for many years that it’s like oh we need more representation on stage. Like they didn’t think that because their world was whiteness. That’s just not my experience, and so to still go and be in a show where I’m one of the only, I’m just like really? Really? And I understand the historical things and things of that nature—I read, saw a couple years ago. There was this white professor, I guess he was a professor, but he was directing a show at a college and I think it was in North Carolina. He was directing The Mountaintop. Are you familiar with that show? Katori Hall. So, it’s Martin Luther King Jr. It’s a two-person show. Martin Luther King Jr. and then a fictional character, Camae, who’s a black woman. 

Middleton: Oh, yeah! I actually read that!

Steele: Yes, brilliant piece of work, right! This white director thought it would be a good idea to double cast the show. So, he had two separate casts. In one cast, it was a black guy playing Martin Luther King and a black girl playing Camae. In then in the other cast, he cast a white man to play Martin Luther King because he thought it could be—I’m like first of all, no sir! Certain things should just not fucking happen! Certain things just should not happen. And I don’t care what artistic license you thought you were taking. I’m like there are so many fucking roles for white men that they don’t need anything else, okay. If we didn’t write another role today, they would be fine, right? Certain things like that are inexcusable, and I just don’t agree with. 

Now, all of Shakespeare was traditionally played by white men. It wasn’t even played by women at first, and so now, of course that is not the case. And so do I think there should be a white Othello? No, but y’know they have Hamlet and Mackers and all of these other things which I think are free rein. They have y’know Twelfth Night which they’re fucking fairies and like turning heads into donkeys, like it’s fictional. So there’s nothing to say what color these people should be. Now traditionally, they were a certain color because that was the people he knew and where he grew up, y’know? Were there people of color? I don’t know. I’m sure ‘cause we’re everywhere, but I understand location wise how these characters were traditionally represented. And I don’t think there’s not a space that a black person couldn’t fill in any of these shows. I’ll just say that. Now Henry V and all of those are based on real kings of the past, I don’t know. I wouldn’t be opposed to it, but y’know I’m just one person. 

Middleton: And so that makes me want to ask are there any roles in the future you hope to work with, hope to be cast as?

Steele: I’m terrible with that question. Every time someone asks me my favorite book or favorite movie or role—I never know. I just, there’s so much out there. I just always find it so hard to pinpoint. I love to be stretched as an artist, and so I’m like whatever someone tells me that I can’t do, I’m gone do it. And so that’s just the kind of person and artist that I have been and I will continue to be. So no specific roles or shows. 

Middleton: That’s fine. We kind of spoke about this a little bit. You’re definitely anti-centering white men, and I agree with that. What do you think about Shakespearean plays in the contemporary? Are there any plays you think should be paused or censored? I know in class we talk about black trauma playing Othello or characters like that. So where do you position yourself? 

Steele: Yeah, censorship. I’m not a big fan of censorship, actually. What I do think should happen, and it starts in the rehearsal hall when you’re rehearsing in the rehearsal room, is that a conversation should be had. So in Cymbeline—is it Cymbeline? I can’t remember which show it is with—it’s literally a black slave or an Indian slave, I can’t remember, and they say it. They say it. They talk about that character’s blackness. Is it the Simarillion—I almost said The Simarillion. That is J.R. Tolkien. I can’t remember what specific show that is, but they talk about this person’s black skin, and I’m like, yeah, but let a conversation be had and be intentional with what you’re doing. Be intentional, right? And if you’re gone do something, do a good job. Don’t just pussy foot around something and be scared of approaching the subject. I think when conversations are had and there’s a real plan for those kinds of things, so if—in Henry V, was it Henry V? They’re supposed to be brothers or something— I don’t know. I just feel like, if you’re doing something be intentional with it and with that particular role—even in Twelfth Night—no a Midsummer Night’s Dream. Even in a Midsummer Night’s Dream, something happens, I can’t remember. They mention color a few times, and I’m like be intentional. Now do I think the lil slave boy—oh yeah I think it’s in Midsummer—the lil slave boy. The child got taken away from the mother and it was like a lil slave boy, I guess. In our production, the kid who played that character just happened to be black, and so it was like…is this what we want to do? Is this the story we’re tryna tell? It was a thing where as directors and people like that, you have to be intentional and say this is the message I want to say. So I think when conversations are had—now if somebody has a conversation and still makes a wrong choice, y’know that’s on—but I think conversations need to be had and people need to be intentional by what they’re doing. And I did a show where if I had been offered it today, and I’ve done a couple things like that where if I had been offered it today, would I have done it? No, or maybe I would’ve had a conversation and their mindsets would’ve shifted. The Shakespeare shows where they said it, they did a contemporary kind of setting, and they did it where it was in the South. They based it in the South, and so the black people were like in slavery—it was crazy, I don’t know. I can’t even remember the whole premise, but it was like would I do that shit today? Absolutely fucking not! And then what I would do is ask them why the fuck, why would they do that? Like what was the point in that? What message were you trying to send, y’know? But then it was like an experience that I had, and now I know better and then I didn’t. Not that I wouldn’t have voiced that then, but I didn’t even think about it like that then. 

Middleton: No, I agree. I think that intentions are very important, and I think that conversations do need to happen, especially with race. It’s so easily to be taken out of context or misinterpreted and just harmful. So that makes me want to ask, looking at the roles you have played, what is it like preparing for those kinds of roles? I know with the different time period, Shakespearean is usually a bit of a challenge. So what is that like? 

Steele: I always have—it’s so intimidating just as a person. I think as people unless you’re in that world, it’s just intimidating because it’s like what the fuck are these people talking about? Like what are they talking about? And so my experiences have been really awesome especially working with certain directors. They have this style during the rehearsal period where you do table work, and so you spend maybe a week at the table, not even on your feet, not memorizing anything. But you spend a week at the table in the text learning what this person, even if it’s not even your character, but just learning the workings and what does this word mean? What did it mean during that time, right? And so I had so many discoveries that I’m just like woah. It is amazing to understand something, to know what somebody is talking about. 

And so I’ll also put that in the context of teaching. So one of the guys, he is an amazing artist. His name is Santiago Sosa. He wrote this four-person, Shakespearean conglomeration. So it was like a lot of the plays mixed into one in an hour. Yeah, it was four people: me, him, Santiago is Mexican, this white girl named Becca, and this white guy named Everett. And it was the four of us and we just played all these different characters and scenes and all that kind of stuff. And we did it for schools and we did one at the detention center, the juvenile. And he broke it down in a way where it was accessible and they, even if they didn’t understand everything, they knew what was happening. And they felt a part and we put it on the floor, it was like mobile, so we went around with a chest and made props and things like that. And so I think that is so important to do. Not just have your kids read it, but make it constructed in a way where not only are they hearing the words but they’re understanding and taking something away and then asking questions. When kids are asking questions, you know that you’re in the right place. So we had so many of those where they asked questions and were so involved or they had a certain response and we knew they were listening because of the response they had to whatever scene it was. 

That is one of my biggest things because I remember as a youth when I saw certain things and so many things I knew I was a part of but I don’t remember shit about them because they didn’t make it—I was like I don’t what the fuck the people, I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you’re representing. You don’t look like me. Your life experience is obviously different than my life experience. You don’t understand my socioeconomic background, like none of these things, right. That’s why I think it’s so important to put artists in places where they can touch people like that. Like people can always be touched by art which is why I do so much appreciate Shakespeare just by the lyricalness of it all and all of the words. So in that hour show I was just telling you about, it was a litany of words and phrases that Shakespeare invented in his writings that people still use everyday and have no idea where it came from. It is so many. It’s astounding. When I read it, I was like are you sure? And he was like um yeah. So I think that is so great when people, kids, adults heard that they were like what?! They couldn’t believe it—as I couldn’t even as an actor who has been in those works before. 

Middleton: No, that’s great. The fact that he couldn’t even make it accessible and more familiar, I think that’s really impressive, and that makes me want to ask, as a performance coach, do you have any advice for people trying to get into Shakespeare, particularly black individuals and particularly black youth? I know I’m new to it, so I would appreciate anything. 

Steele: I know the company here, and I don’t know if this is true for a lot of companies, but I think it’s pretty widespread. They have this apprentice program, and I think a lot of companies do have this. They have this apprentice program at Nashville Shakespeare Festival in particular where it’s college-aged kids on down to, I think, 8-9 years old and all the way up to college kids. And they can sign up and they have scholarships. A lot of these places have scholarships and people don’t even know, especially for black and brown bodies because of this great movement of representation. So they have these apprenticeships where not only do you get to be in whatever summer stock shows they’re doing that summer or Shakespeare in the Park, not only do you get to be in those, I think it’s maybe 4 or 5 weeks leading up to it you’re in rehearsals, but also while in rehearsals, earlier in the day you’re in workshops and they do the dialect coaching, the breakdowns, the warmups, the actor performance styles, all of these different things with many different people, movement. Like it’s incredible and so I would say definitely look for a place that’s like that where they offer apprenticeships and many offer scholarships you may just have to ask. Like I have never been disappointed with asking a question. All they can say is yes or no, but if you don’t ask you’ll never know the answer and may miss out on a wonderful opportunity. If you A. Can’t afford it which is a lot of inner city children. They don’t have access to the arts, so that’s where the initial struggle comes from is just us not having access to the arts. And I’ve seen some of those kids where they come through and like man if I what’ve had what you have at your age who knows where I would be or what I would’ve already experienced. So I would say look around for that, and also reach out.

And also social media is so prevalent now, I would say whatever market you find yourself in, reach out to the black artists in that market and whether you do things like this or calls because of covid or ask them if they feel comfortable meeting you at an outside place for tea or something like that. You know maybe buying them a three dollar tea or something just to thank them for their time. I would say do that or even if they don’t want to meet up and all they have is the time to email or maybe a phone conversation or something. I would say definitely do that with as many of them as you can. Typically markets are very, very small, and so when you meet one they might pass you off to another after you get acquainted with them, and that’s how you build a network and that’s how you work. Most of my jobs that I’ve had are from networking and the people that I know and the places that I’ve put myself in, the positions I put myself in. Utilize your resources! 

Middleton: I think in answering that question you also answered how to increase black youth engagement just by giving them opportunities and providing them with scholarships and grants if necessary. I know you’re running low on time, so I’ll ask you one question and we can just wrap it up. So my last question would be: how would you envision future engagements with Shakespeare in theatre? What changes would you like to see progress made towards? 

Steele: I would just like to see people moving, putting their own feet to the fires and seeking out, if you see your stage is just flooded with whiteness, figure out why. Figure out why black and brown bodies don’t come to your shows. Figure out why they don’t know they could be potentially be cast if they auditioned. So many people didn’t go to things because they feel like well they’re not gonna cast me anyway I don’t see anybody out there—I’ve never seen anybody out there who looks like me. So I think it’s high time for companies to hold themselves accountable and make the change. But also, with black people just showing up whether you think they’re going to cast you or not. Just show up and make them tell you no. Make them tell you no. Go in there be prepared, be on time, be courteous to everybody. You never know who is who! Be courteous to everybody, and I’m not saying be false or anything like that, but be courteous. It’s nothing to be kind. If you can live your life like that to the best of your ability but especially when you’re in places where you’re representing yourself and your brand.

Middleton: And I think that’s a great and important note to end on, so I’m going to stop recording.

Scroll to Top