- Weyward Macbeth: Intersections of Race and Performance
Part of the series Signs of Race, Weyward Macbeth is a cross-cultural study of how differing racial identities negotiate Shakespeare's play, raising awareness and engaging divisions. While previous explorations of the crossroads between race and Shakespeare have often taken the well-worn paths of Othello or The Tempest, Scott Newstok and Ayanna Thompson believe it is through productions of Macbeth, where performances of race are more artificial, arbitrary, and "weyward," that the construction and performance of racial identity can be best illustrated (though Othello's shadow haunts the text, appearing in almost every entry). With twenty-five articles divided among seven sections ranging from mid-nineteenth-century productions to contemporary manifestations in music, television, and cinema, Weyward Macbeth chronicles the winding, wandering journey of Macbeth through the racialized landscape of America.
Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, the first section investigates how African American bodies onstage and in public consciousness addressed issues of slavery and emancipation. "Blood Will Have Blood" (Heather Nathan) and "The Exorcism of Macbeth" (John Briggs) both explore how Macbeth was manifested as a rhetorical device for societal debate through political cartoons, the Astor Place riots, and the Reconstruction-era rallies of Frederick Douglass. Included in the section is "Ira Aldridge as Macbeth" (Bernth Lindfors), a thorough account of one of the African American actor's lesser-studied roles. Lindfors deftly illustrates how Aldridge actively manipulates racial expectations through his self-promotions and presents the contradictory criticism he received from white European audiences, who found him "too passionate and unbridled" as Othello, but not passionate enough as Macbeth (50). "Minstrel Show Macbeth" (Joyce Green MacDonald) sheds light on blackface parodies of antebellum New York. The section concludes with a transition to the twentieth century in "Reading Macbeth in Text by and about African Americans, 1903–1944" (Nick Moshchovakis), where the voices of African American literary critics questioned previous conceptions of moral dualism as part of their own liminal political reality between emancipation and civil liberty.
The most focused and rewarding section concerns the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) and Orson Welles's "Voodoo" Macbeth. "Before Welles" (Lisa Simmons) features an all African American production that occurred six-months before Welles's. The details Simmons provides on its genesis and reception are precise and illuminating, especially concerning the budding career of Ralf Coleman, serving as the only African American director of the FTP in Massachusetts (81). "Black Cast Conjures White Genius" (Marguerite Rippy) continues with the "racially progressive politics and racially insensitive opportunism" presented by the Welles's production's Haitian setting, the omnipresence of rhythmic drumming, and Welles's own supposed blackface performance "where he performed so convincingly … no one noticed it was a white actor" (83). "After Welles" (Scott Newstok) and "The Vo-Du Macbeth!" (Lenwood Sloan) both show how contemporary stage productions continue to be haunted by Welles's production. Newstok highlights overt reconstructions like the 1977 New Federal Theatre revival, while Sloan continues by documenting his own attempts to re-imagine the event in 2005. Newstok ascribes the success of these productions to "mediating at length upon their distance from Welles's production, permit[ting] them to draw upon its precedent without re-doing its downfalls" (99).
Another rich section for study focuses on the African American poets, playwrights, and writers who continue to develop and reframe Macbeth. "Three Weyward Sisters" (Charita Gainey-O'Toole and Elizabeth Alexander) examines how the poetic works of Rita Dove, Julia Fields, and Lucille Clifton re-appropriate the characters in order express the perspectives of marginalized women, while "'Blacking Up Again'" (Philip Kolin) features Ntozake Shange's Spell #7, August Wilson's King Hedley II, and Suzan-Lori Parks's "Project Macbeth," all of which address the "suppressing or displacing [of] a black presence while, ironically, embracing and orchestrating a black agon" (220). The theme of African American artists' immersion into character through self-reflective stances continues in "A Black Actor's Guide to the Scottish Play" (Harry Lennix...