How Black Theater Artists Are Introducing Shakespeare to More Diverse Audiences

John Douglas Thompson portrays the magician Prospero in a Commonwealth Shakespeare Company production of The Tempest in Boston this month. (Evgenia Eliseeva/Commonwealth Shakespeare Company)

Thousands of people will lay down blankets this week and watch Commonwealth Shakespeare Company‘s annual production in Boston Common, the heart of the city’s sacred civic space.

This year’s selection, following a year off because of the pandemic, is The Tempest. The production stars John Douglas Thompson as Prospero, a powerful magician ruling over a tiny island.

Thompson, 57, didn’t take to the stage until his late 20s, but then quickly built a reputation as one of the greatest stage actors now working. He’s earned a Tony Award nomination for his work in August Wilson’s Jitney, and has been showered with accolades for his interpretations of many Shakespeare roles.

His success in classical theater stands out in an environment where Shakespeare is more often a tale told by a white man. Some scholars and theater artists argue that Shakespeare, Inc. — how the Bard is read, studied and performed — is in need of a racial reckoning.

“There is still the pervasive understanding of Shakespeare as implicitly white,” said Patricia Akhimie, a Black Shakespeare scholar who teaches at Rutgers University. “That is, unless someone is explicitly named as different, that everyone and everything in the play are white. That still is alienating for audiences. It was for me.”

Following the publication of a much-circulated open letter to the white theater establishment last year, many in the field are questioning a canon dominated by white playwrights—with Shakespeare looming above them all.

They ask: What role does Shakespeare have in the diverse theater canon of the future?

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SOURCE: NPR, Jeremy D. Goodwin