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Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race and Contemporary America by Ayanna Thompson (review)

From: Comparative Drama
Volume 47, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 134-137 | 10.1353/cdr.2013.0012

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Ayanna Thompson's Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race and Contemporary America represents a profound shift in the field. Works like Kim F. Hall's1995 landmark text, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in the Early Modern England, along with theoretical work by Arthur Little, Peter Erickson, Joyce Green MacDonald, Ania Loomba, Margo Hendricks, Dympna Callaghan, Jyotsna Singh, and others, have made race central to the study of the early modern moment. But in bringing to the fore the American racial experience of Shakespeare in the contemporary moment, Thompson's work brings these issues to a new light. Eschewing the assumption that the study of Shakespeare is essentially "good for you" or even progressive, Thompson asks: "What does the history of Shakespearean scholarship and performance tell us about the possibilities for employing Shakespeare as a theoretical and practical tool for negotiating contemporary race relations?" (6); what then, she asks, is the intellectual and ethical value of studying practices like blackface in Shakespeare's moment as well as our own? How might Shakespeare's movement in contemporary culture as he is edited, appropriated, and revised impact our understanding of authenticity and authority? And how has such authority been used, progressively or otherwise, for marginalized or other groups, including incarcerated persons and youth of color? For this purpose, Thompson uses an expansive archive, including popular film, activist theater performances, YouTube sites and youth-generated videos, blackface legal cases, and original-practices productions of Shakespeare. The result is a dynamic and wide-reaching analysis, truly cultural studies in its most generous sense.

In her introductory chapter, "The Passing Strangeness of Shakespeare," the author insightfully parses the traveling meanings of the word passing in order to highlight the book's major argumentative trajectories. Beginning with Othello's description of Desdemona's wonder at his "passing strange" biography (1.3.157-162), Thompson evokes both Desdemona's fascination with blackness as well as Othello's experience of being othered, and the melancholy connotations of both struggle and loss in his story. This moment will raise the key issues of authenticity, as well as desire, that are part of American racial experiences central to the book as a whole. As we move from Shakespeare to Charlotte Brontë to Robert Lewis Stephenson to Joseph Conrad, "passing strange" builds from Othello's experience of exceptionality to the fear of being othered by the Other, and a sense of risk, attraction, and repulsion. Such dynamics inform the debates around Shakespearean appropriation and borrowing explored in the text. Finally, Thompson brings us to Mark Stewart's (a.k.a. Stew's) recent hit Broadway musical Passing Strange, which deliberately alludes to Othello's masterful, if melancholy, storytelling with an American difference. Stew details his travels in Europe and his often convincing activation of fantasies of American blackness for his European friends and lovers. In Stew's self-exploration of what he calls "'black folks passing for black folks'" (10), he adds to Othello's first use of passing the consummately modern American anxiety about racial indeterminacy. We might link this indeterminacy to one of the book's major themes: the instability of Shakespeare's texts, image, and performances.

In her second and third chapters, Thompson considers ways that popular texts appropriate Shakespeare both to decenter and universalize him, and in the process present different ideas of racial insiderhood. In her second chapter, "Universalism: Two Films that Brush with the Bard, Suture and Bringing Down the House," Thompson uses popular film—the art house psychological thriller Suture and the "lowbrow" Queen-Latifah-as-fish-out-of-water comedy, Bringing Down the House—to show different cultural uses of the notion of Shakespeare as both universal and central to American consciousness. These films traffic in Shakespeare to illustrate ideals of colorblindness, as well as racial and national exclusivity, sometimes to critical effect. In her third chapter, "Essentialism: Meditations Inspired by Farrukh Dhondy's Novel Black Swan," Thompson thinks about the limits of strategic essentialism in decentering Shakespeare in the young adult novel Black Swan. In the novel, a young girl discovers a Caribbean renegade who ultimately pens the story of another renegade, a black and queer slave, who cowrites Shakespeare's plays...


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