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Art and Culture

David and Art - "A Better Shakespeare"

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Taking great works of art to new audiences requires only that we see the common humanity in all of us.

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One of the regular misunderstandings I deal with on the part of my students is their suspicion and their belief that history has nothing to do with them and has nothing to say to them. I devote a lot of my efforts over the course of any given semester to breaking through this erroneous assumption to make it clear to them that, contrary to their expectations, history is very real and can speak directly to them and their experiences.
 
 
One often encounters the same assumptions when it comes to the artistic canon: that body of works that has, through the years, been sort of enshrined as “classics” from Jane Austen to Rembrandt; Van Gogh to Shakespeare; Bach, Verdi, Gershwin. 
 
 
Shakespeare probably comes closest to epitomizing what a canonical work is.  His plays are the most read and produced in the world.  But a question today is whether canonical art has any claim on the attention of today’s increasingly diverse audiences and if it can speak to those audiences at all.  Many believe that it can’t. 
 
 
Others however, members of diverse communities, believe that Shakespeare is powerful enough to reach everyone and can do so with through casting and staging. 
 
 
“As applied to Shakespeare,” said one NPR reporter said recently, color conscious casting is “about breaking free from inherited assumptions and finding new ways to explore and enjoy the work.” I thought of that when I saw pictures of Syrian refugees performing Romeo And Juliet in a Jordanian refugee camp.  Think about that a little bit.
 
 
Carl Cofield, the associate artistic director of the Classical Theater of Harlem, agrees completely.  “It might sound different because you're not used to seeing an actor of color be a Hamlet, be a King Lear, be a Falstaff,” he said earlier this summer, “but if you stay with it and use your imagination, you might have a richer experience,” and “think about the work in a new way.”
 
 
In San Francisco, The African-American Shakespeare Company formed in 1994 for the express purpose of opening “the realm of classic theatre to a diverse audience” and to provide a place for actors of color “to hone their skills and talent in mastering some of the world’s greatest classical roles.”  It operates today with the conviction “that knowledge of the classics has great potential to empower communities of color.”
 
 
There’s nothing inherently white or British or even European in Shakespeare and to assume there is—or worse that it should be perceived that way—is to completely misread everything about drama and art and the way Shakespeare himself saw humanity. 
 
 
We believe the classics should and need to be accessible to historically excluded audiences.
 
 
Shakespeare’s plays were designed to be reinvented author Andrew Dickson told the BBC a few years ago.  Partly, he says, because they had so many different audiences to please when originally written, from Kings to blacksmiths. 
 
 
Bringing Shakespeare to more diverse populations with more diverse casts will be a blessing to all involved.
 
 
Bloom: The Western Canon
“Shakespearean exuberance is part of what breaks through linguistic and cultural barriers. You cannot confine Shakespeare to the English renaissance any more than you can keep Falstaff within the limits of the Henry the fourth plays or the prince of Denmark within the action of his drama”
 
 
“ Shakespeare has the largeness of nature itself, and through that largeness he senses natures indifference. Nothing crucial in this largeness is culture bound or gender confined.”
 
 
The idea of a canon is not for the lazy. It’s not some kind of shortcut.