“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