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Weyward Macbeth: Intersections of Race and Performance (review)

From: College Literature
Volume 38, Number 2, Spring 2011
pp. 178-181 | 10.1353/lit.2011.0018

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Neither readers nor audiences tend to align Macbeth with the subject of race. When we situate Shakespeare in the context of racial or nationalist discourse, we typically focus on four or five plays, from Titus Andronicus at the beginning of his career to The Tempest at the end. The "other," the foreign, the subaltern seem not to be topics that belong to most of the Shakespeare canon, and less still to Macbeth. Yet when it comes to the history of performance, Macbeth has a powerful legacy—particularly in America—of engagement with questions of color and ethnicity. Even Shakespeare scholars are apt to know only scraps of this past, so the new collection from Scot L. Newstok and Ayanna Thompson is a welcome addition to the scholarship on theatrical history and practice. Weyward Macbeth—the anomalous spelling of "way—ward" derives from the description of the witches in the First Folio—attempts to cure the "historical amnesia" (8) that has erased the play's rich, raucous theatrical conversation with African-American and other cultures. Or, as Thompson puts it in her introduction, "Weyward Macbeth positions the 'Scottish Play' in the center of American racial constructions" (8). In this goal, the book meets with mixed success. But most of the contributors do show the considerable charge that thinking differently, or highlighting and remembering race, can bring to the play.

The collection comprises 26 short (roughly 3000 to 5000-word) essays on Macbeth in several contexts. There are treatments of early American performances and parodies (including minstrel shows); the Federal Theatre Project's productions (Orson Welles and the legacy of his 1936 "Voodoo Macbeth"); and accounts of Macbeths put on by African-, Asian-, Native-, and Latino-American troupes. There are speculations on non-traditional casting in opera, and readings of Macbeth refractions and adaptations on film, television, the internet, and in jazz as well as contemporary African-American poetry and drama. Contributors include actors, directors, and academics—Shakespeareans, Africanists, American historians, Cultural Studies specialists. Newstok and Thompson do well to organize this wildly disparate collection into a readable presentation.

Many of the authors make the Macbeth-race connection through compelling historical data and pithy vignettes, showing (for one example) the surprising frequency with which both abolitionists and slaveholders deployed references to the play: slaveowners and the nation as a whole were like the Macbeths with their indelible bloodstains; while slaves and freedmen themselves were also like the doomed king in his courage, invincibility, and ultimate subjection to larger forces. But most of the authors here exhibit some strain in articulating precisely the significance of the connection of Macbeth to matters of race. The stellar American actor Harry Lennix contributes a lovely essay, "A Black Actor's Guide to the Scottish Play, or, Why Macbeth Matters" (113-20), and his answers to the question "why Macbeth?" represent an honest, distilled version of the difficulty most of the authors encounter in one way or another. He begins disarmingly: "Africans and their descendants are uniquely empowered to bring a deeper resonance to [Macbeth] because of its interest in the metaphysical world. I do not know a black person who does not, on some level, believe in ghosts" (115). Indeed, many of the racially informed productions discussed in the volume highlight, along with the collection's title, the witchy, uncanny "weyward"-ness of the play; the specificity of Lennix's response here makes cultural sense, if we believe him. But his subsequent explanations for Macbeth's appropriateness to the work of black actors grow broadly unhelpful or contradictory: "No course of action in its direct dramatic line depends upon race"; then, he says hopefully, the play has "the deepest parallels with our everyday realities, both the tangible and emotional." Finally he notes: "Our company did not believe that the play teaches us anything of importance as a function of race consciousness. Thus, we wondered when in the history of the Americas the descendents of Africa have experienced the larger human truths represented in the play" (116). His troupe discovers "no literal parallel," but that does not completely discourage Lennix from pressing on for explanations about the play's applicability to the African-American experience. He concludes...

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