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Weyward Macbeth: Intersections of Race and Performance (review)

From: Modern Drama
Volume 54, Number 1, Spring 2011
pp. 108-110 | 10.1353/mdr.2011.0003

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Weyward Macbeth gathers twenty-six essays that examine (mostly American) intersections of Macbeth and race. Co-editor Ayanna Thompson notes that describing the racial implications of Macbeth is not as common as, say, thinking about such implications in Othello. Nevertheless, she avers that "Macbeth's focus on the indelible quality of blood, that staining and smelling substance that Lady Macbeth cannot fully wash from her hands, unnervingly coincides with early American debates about the nature — the essence — of race" (4). She and co-editor Scott L. Newstok chose the ambiguous adjective in their title for similar reasons: "'Weyward' — as weird, fated, fateful, perverse, intractable, willful, erratic, unlicensed, fugitive, troublesome, and wayward — is precisely the correct word for Macbeth's role in American racial formations" (3).

This collection undoubtedly demonstrates the intractable diversity of American readings of Macbeth over time, and Newstok and Thompson attempt to bring order to their contributors' disparate material by arranging it in seven different sections. This division works quite well in the grouping of "Early American Intersections," where Heather S. Nathan's discussion of the conflicting meanings that Macbeth had for America's antebellum (white and black) audiences sheds light on John C. Briggs's chapter on the often strangely re-contextualized citations of Macbeth in Frederick Douglass's writings. These two chapters, in turn, provide a context for understanding the broader implications of Bernth Lindfors's essay about how perceptions of race affected the varied European reception of Ira Aldridge's performance of Macbeth.

Yet the divisions between the book's sections do not entirely contain the connections and thematic overlaps that occur among the pieces, which is hardly unfortunate. Not surprisingly, the questions Lindfors raises about black actors playing traditionally white roles recur throughout the volume, in essays ranging from William C. Carroll's analysis of a 2008 multilingual Macbeth at the University of Hawai'i to Wallace McClain Cheatham's "Reflections on Verdi, Macbeth, and Non-Traditional Casting in Opera." Amy Scott-Douglass and Harry J. Lennix, meanwhile, draw on their own experiences of non-traditional casting to make especially persuasive and considered arguments for rethinking recent critiques of colour-blind performance. Such arguments get an empirical boost from Brent Butgereit and Newstok's informative Appendix of "Selected Productions of Macbeth Featuring Non-Traditional Casting."

Orson Welles's 1936 Federal Theatre Project (or "Voodoo") Macbeth is invoked repeatedly; indeed, the book's cover features a photograph of the production's opening-night crowd. The editors devote an entire section to the FTP Macbeth, including Lisa N. Simmon's essay on a pre-Welles, 1935 all-black production in Boston; Margerite Rippy's exploration of Welles's ambivalent racial politics; and Newstok's survey of "restagings" or recitations of the 1936 production.

Charita Gainey-O'Toole and Elizabeth Alexander mine the works of three African American female poets for allusions to Macbeth, but, perhaps appropriately, the collection gives more weight to dramatic reworkings of the play. Concise, intelligent pieces by Nick Moschovakis, Philip C. Kolin, and Peter Erickson cover the immensely varied dramatic incorporations of Macbeth by numerous twentieth-century African American dramatists, including Leslie Pickney Hill, Arna Bontemps, Langston Hughes, Adrienne Kennedy, Ntozake Shange, August Wilson, Suzan-Lori Parks, Phillip Hayes Dean, and Carlyle Brown. Together, these chapters might complicate the cultural history of Macbeth, but they certainly also answer any lingering questions about the importance of the play in negotiating race in America.

Two contributions stand out for their dense, insightful analysis. The first is Douglas Lanier's superb chapter on Duke Ellington's portrayal of Lady Macbeth in his "Lady Mac," which Lanier relates to Ellington's promotion of African-American cultural aspirations. The second is Todd Landon Barnes's essay about the YouTube video "Revenge of the Ghetto," in which Barnes manages to combine compelling arguments about pedagogy, digital reproduction, and circulation between the "white" cultures of Shakespearean performance and suburban youth and the "black" culture of Hip Hop.

It is not unusual that, in such a large collection, some essays fit better than others. Celia Daileder's discussion of "What Thomas Middleton's The Witch Can Tell Us about Race, Sex, and Gender in Macbeth" is very fine but...

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