‘Book of Will’ Fails to Diversify The Bard

By Lavina Jadhwani

“Casting should be diverse. Shakespeare is meant for everyone.”

This simple statement, written atop the casting breakdown of Lauren Gunderson’s new play, THE BOOK OF WILL at Northlight Theatre, filled me with so much hope.

I am a woman of color who regularly directs Shakespeare and regularly encounters pushback when trying to convince producers and audiences that the words people often assume were written primarily for white, cis, able-bodied men can be shared by, well, everyone. That’s why I was so moved by Gunderson’s sentiment and so excited by the casting announcements made by the Denver Center and Oregon Shakespeare Festival regarding this play. (The world premiere in Denver included two South Asian actors — my desi heart soared!!) My heart sank, however, when I saw the casting announcement of a local company, Northlight Theatre, which included an all white cast and production team. Nevertheless, I attended the production in hopes of learning something new about this play and the world of William Shakespeare. I wanted to keep an open mind. And honestly — I wanted to support my friends.

On opening night, one of those friends approached me and before I could say anything to them, immediately apologized for the casting of the production. “I know we’re all white, I’m sorry,” they said. I didn’t unpack this issue any further with them because honestly — they were apologizing for decisions that weren’t theirs to make.

But someone did make those decisions. Several people, in fact – director Jessica Thebus, artistic director BJ Jones, casting director Lynn Baber, and more – looked at the all white roster of artists and said, “This is the version of the story I’m comfortable telling,” despite the playwright’s guiding sentiment.

The word “comfortable” best describes the Northlight production. It’s not particularly exciting, it doesn’t really challenge the audience – it’s terribly safe. It’s a clear story without much conflict. When I walked away from the opening night performance, I did not take away that “Shakespeare is meant for everyone.” Rather, I felt like I was being told that Shakespeare was meant for a very specific group of people — a group that does not include me. The experience was heartbreaking at best, traumatic at worst.

In Northlight’s version of this play, cis white people alone are the keepers of Shakespeare’s work. They are the experts on performing it. They are the inspiration for it. This was problematic to me both in relationship to the production itself, and what the production implies about who should have access to those words.

As for the production itself, Emma Couling’s NewCity Stage review hits the nail on the head, and if you haven’t already read it, I encourage you to do so: 

Simply put: I think this production would have been more relevant, exciting, and accessible it had featured a more diverse company — onstage and off. I’ll refer you to the words of the late Martha Lavey, circa 2006 (via TimeOut Chicago):

“As for the big ‘“so what?’”—why does diversity matter to theater?—Lavey reframes that question this way: ‘“Does it make the conversation better?’” Her disarmingly simple, indisputable answer: ‘“Yeah.’”

But I really want to focus on what the production implies in terms of access, the second point – because the decisions made during the hiring process for this production directly fly in the face of my work. I am primarily focused on advocating for marginalized voices in both new plays as well as canonical work – and I can’t help but wonder what this production could have accomplished if just one of the decision makers involved had advocated for some of those voices. It’s already a challenge to get many (though not all) producers and audiences to accept that people of color, trans* people, and people with disabilities can and should rock out some Shakespeare. This production of The Book of Will reinforces the notion that only cis, white, able bodied artists are capable of honoring Shakespeare’s words, and that’s simply not true. By choosing to present this story, on a large scale, through an all white lens, the Northlight production also reflects a notion of white supremacy that’s incredibly dangerous.

Many decision makers subscribe to the belief that Shakespeare should be performed a certain way. That belief that is rooted in the assumption that his words were written for white, cis, able-bodied men — and should continue to be performed in that manner. For example, I’ve heard white producers claim that the actors of color they auditioned “didn’t get the style” or “couldn’t perform the dialects required.” I find those claims to be thin excuses – again, Shakespeare is meant for everyone. I believe that people who hide behind the idea that certain people can’t get Shakespeare “right” are missing the point — and oppressing marginalized voices while they do so.

Due to the respected reputations of both Northlight and Thebus, this production sets a precedent — for future productions of this play in specific as well as future productions of Shakespeare, in general. I’m deeply uncomfortable with t hat precedent. As someone who champions both new plays and canonical work, I see this production as a big step backwards. In the future, I hope producers will choose to honor Gunderson’s vision more clearly and hire a more inclusive cast and production team, helping to move this play, as well as our entire field, forward.

Photo Credit: Liz Lauren

4 Replies to “‘Book of Will’ Fails to Diversify The Bard”

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with your argument and criticism, but I feel like your piece is missing the objectivity of requesting response from Jessica Thebus, BJ Jones, or Lynn Baber.

    Maybe you did seek a comment from them and they never got back to you, but if you didn’t, I think you should have, and could have even said “they didn’t respond to a request for comment.”

    I get that you went, and spoke to friends of yours who acted in it, and that this is a critique and not pure journalism, but I think if the goal is to have a better conversation. You have to show that you brought them into the conversation first-hand, and not just after you publish.

    1. Dear Henry,

      Rescripted firmly believes that dialogue is key, which is why our we reached out to the creative team of BOOK OF WILL immediately to ensure they also had a chance to be part of the conversation. We have since received a response from Northlight that you can read here: http://rescripted.org/2017/12/05/northlight-statement/. While our mission is all about dialogue and response because this is an op-ed and not a research essay, we did not require Ms. Jadhwani to reach out independently. I hope that answers your questions, and thanks as always for reading Rescripted!

      Regina Victor

  2. Dear Friends,

    We are grateful to engage in this vital conversation, one that we endorse and support.

    With regard to The Book of Will, our objective was to be inclusive in our casting. Our casting process extended invitations to actors of color. Indeed, we made offers to multiple actors of color. All of whom turned down the roles for a variety of reasons, with availability being chief among them. We extended the casting process, and searched on.

    Northlight strives to be inclusive not only in our casting but also in our season selection. This commitment is evidenced in how we have approached the casting of our previous shows, such as last season’s Miss Bennet by Lauren Gunderson, as well as our most recent production, this season’s The Legend of Georgia McBride. It appears in our commission of Faceless, which concerns anti-Islamic prejudice, and our ongoing engagement with the work of Dominique Morisseau.

    We take issues of diversity and inclusion seriously. We recognize that with The Book of Will, we did not achieve our objective as set forth by our playwright, our director, or our core values. We will redouble our efforts to champion equity, diversity and inclusion. We have done better and we will do better.

    BJ Jones, Artistic Director
    Northlight Theatre

  3. Dear Lavina–this is a such a clear and well-penned critique and I applaud you for writing it. Certainly when I saw images of Book of Will online, I thought “welp, I’ll likely miss that one.” And I’m a big fan of Northlight and of my friend Jessica Thebus. I, like you, just don’t gravitate to an all-white stage.

    That being said, BJ Jones was doing more earlier than most to put many points of view on the Northlight stage. A stage, that we’ll remember, is in an extremely not-diverse community and whose audience is predominantly white. However, I’ve watched BJ since I’ve been in Chicago regularly program work representative of marginalized communities–Faceless, Charm, The Whipping Man, Detroit ’67 and Permanent Collection among many. And he’s brought his audience along with him, changing both minds and hearts. As a white, male artistic director in a really white suburb, BJ has always impressed me with the intentionality of his programming and his insistence that his audience think bigger.

    Diversity is a core value for BJ Jones and Northlight Theatre. That’s what makes this situation so sad to me. I know he and Jessica intended to cast differently and take him at his word when they had offers out to actors of color who were, not-surprisingly, unavailable.

    My hope in future would be that if the intention is to cast an ensemble representative of the world we live in now, that that intention become a non-negotiable priority. Because truly that’s the only way it gets done.

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