- Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race, and Contemporary America by Ayanna Thompson
The dust jacket of Ayanna Thompson’s Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race, and Contemporary America has a provocative photography which seems to illustrate that race, at least in this context, also means conflict. Pictured are two actors/characters, one white and one black, whom we presume are enacting some scene from a Shakespearean text. The black actor/character is in a trunk and looks as though he is about to close the lid upon himself. The white actor/character is leaning on the opened lid. The faces of the two reveal some conflict, if not enmity. Clearly the white actor/character has gotten the better of the black man, at least momentarily. Could this be Iago entrapping Othello? Or Othello literally boxing himself off from all hope? The inside of the jacket tells us that the image is from a 2008 production of Twelfth Night, and the scene is one between Feste and Malvolio. The actor who plays Feste is black; the actor playing Malvolio is white. Given the title of the book, it should come as no surprise that we read racial conflict into the scene, the text of which has none. The title Passing Strange is a direct quotation from Othello, so again assigning that role to the encased black man makes perfect sense. Readers of Passing Strange will discover that the entire book invites us to unpack the racial, cultural heritage of Shakespeare in America, and how easily we have come to assign to the sixteenth-century Englishman a role in our continuing national struggle to understand how race grows parasitically on all of our cultural enterprises and imaginations.
Professor Thompson explores a number of diverse and unusual cultural productions to demonstrate just how pervasive Shakespearean cross-fertilization is in popular culture. The book’s eight chapters tackle a number of manifestations of this sometimes unlikely combination of race and Shakespearean amalgamation. Chapter two explores how the simple invocation of Shakespeare’s name or alluding to him in some way allows for two movies to participate in much larger social, political and cultural questions than their plots would initially allow. In analyzing the two films, Suture (1993) and Bring down the House (2003), Thompson looks at issues as diverse as Shakespearean universalism and “color-blind casting.” In this really interesting discussion, readers understand both the cultural capital of invoking Shakespeare and the power of the myth of Shakespeare, even as the movies do not directly engage any texts in a specifically meaningful way. In chapter four, the book has an expanded discussion of color-blind casting, and there Thompson expands our encounter with the notions of universal themes and American optimism, so that we must look for both intentional and unintentional significance in placing people in complex contexts that become racialized by the presence of black actors in the mise en scene.
Thompson brings this demand to many other aspects of American cultural production. What does it mean for Maya Angelou to claim that “Shakespeare was a black woman;” or Henry Louis Gates, Jr. to proclaim that Shakespeare had “black [End Page 674] ancestors”? Do those statements conflict with, undermine, or endorse Lynne Cheney’s embrace of Shakespearean universalism, which transcends “accidents of class, race and gender [to] speak to us all”? Passing Strange provides readers with a well-researched and strong theoretical basis for engaging these questions and achieving an understanding of their interconnectedness with other questions that arise from any attempt to interrogate the myth and world of Shakespeare and race.
The most interesting discussions in the book focus on Othello and issues that arise in contemporary performances or engagement with the text. Three of the book’s eight chapters deal with responses to contemporary performances of this play that most famously deal with white cultural encounters with black men. Chapter five addresses theatrical “originalism,” or the effort to perform the plays as closely as possible to the theatrical practices of the early seventeenth century. Such practices would require a white actor in blackface...