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Weyward Macbeth: Intersections of Race and Performance ed. by Scott L. Newstok and Ayanna Thompson (review)

From: Parergon
Volume 29, Number 2, 2012
pp. 294-296 | 10.1353/pgn.2012.0126

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This is a substantial collection, consisting of twenty-six articles and an Appendix. The articles are relatively short and include few footnotes, but they pack a great deal of information into their allotted spaces. Together, they are essential to anyone seeking to understand the importance of Macbeth to the history of race relations in America, especially black-white relations. Although the collection's title indicates that it addresses race in general, the majority of the articles focus on African-American performance histories and adaptations. I cannot do justice to such a large number of articles in a brief review. By singling out some articles, I do not mean to denigrate others, but simply to indicate the highlights in this extensive collection.

Ayanna Thompson's introductory article delineates the scope of the collection and explains the title's source, stemming from the First Folio's description of the witches as 'weyward' rather than 'weird', as most subsequent editors have had it. Thompson notes that Macbeth is not a play that 'readily announces itself as already weywardly racialized' (p. 6), and argues that 'weyward' is 'precisely the correct word for Macbeth's role in American racial formations' (p. 4). Celia R. Daileader's piece reminds us of Thomas Middleton's revising influence on Macbeth, in particular his interpolation of the Hecate scene. Middleton's influence, she argues convincingly, resulted in the ambivalence that gives rise to a 'legacy of "racialized" interpretation' (p. 12), and she provides a foundation in early modern textual criticism for the articles that follow.

These two essays are followed by a series of subsections. The first, 'Early American Intersections', features five articles that explore the resonances and meanings of Macbeth in the antebellum period. Of these, I found most interesting the ones that focus on the tyrant Macbeth's paradoxical appeal to African-American performers and public figures. John C. Briggs, for example, shows how Frederick Douglass regarded Macbeth as a figure enslaved by evil; for Douglass, Macbeth frees himself when he accepts his death and asserts his own freedom from the witches (pp. 38, 40). Nick Moschovakis explains how African-American writers, as well as those who wrote about African- Americans, could allude to Macbeth in ways that might express ambivalence or even solidarity with the title character (p. 66). I would also single out Joyce Green MacDonald's excellent piece on minstrel show parodies of the play for her nuanced analysis of how blackface could express white working-class anxieties about social changes that threatened to marginalize them.

The next two sections, 'Federal Theatre Project(s)' and 'Further Stages', include both scholarly articles and pieces by filmmakers, actors, and directors about specific productions of Macbeth. Notable here are Marguerite Rippy's and Scott L. Newstok's articles on the ambivalent legacy of Orson Welles's famous 'Voodoo Macbeth'. While both acknowledge Welles's role in giving work to black actors during the Depression, they also attempt to strip away some of the mystique adhering to a production that, as Rippy puts it, used Shakespeare to 'legitimize primitivism' (p. 89). In two subsequent essays, Alexander C. Y. Huang and Anita Maynard-Losh draw attention to, respectively, the history of 'Asian-style' stagings of Macbeth (p. 121), and to Maynard-Losh's Alaskan production that set the play within the context of Southern Alaska's indigenous people, the Tlingit. Maynard-Losh relates how she collaborated with Tlingit tribe members to translate large chunks of the play into Tlingit, using linguistic difference to make a larger point about the play's depiction of alienation.

In the following section, 'Music', Douglas Lanier's piece offers an intriguing counter-argument to those who have critiqued Duke Ellington's musical pieces based on Shakespearean characters, especially 'Lady Mac'. Todd Landon Barnes's essay on hip hop appropriations of Shakespeare argues forcefully that erasing the boundary between high and low culture does little to challenge the dynamic by which difference is elided and property rights reasserted in the name of progressivism.

The penultimate section, 'Screen', features articles on whiteness and colour-blind casting. I found Courtney Lehmann's complex exploration of Nina Menke's film The Bloody Child especially intriguing. As Lehmann shows...

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