Taking On Racism In The Theatre: Shakespeare Is A White Supremacist

The last production the Main Street Players will offer in their current space before moving to a new location across the street later this year starts its provocations with its title. And Shakespeare is a White Supremacist, the new play by Andrew Watring that will be playing there through October 17th, definitely is taking them out on a high note.

Shakespeare is a White Supremacist follows a white director’s attempt to stage a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which most of the cast are people of color, flashing back and forth between the show’s political minefield of an audition process and some equally charged rehearsals. 

Lighting design by Amanda Sparhawk and sound design by Alex Tarrandell both help differentiate past from present, as well as to indicate when we go into one of the character’s heads as they externalize their internal monologues. 

The play’s five characters of color are all given the names of famous Shakespearen characters, while the Director and one white Actress are identified only by their professional designations. I suppose this was to encourage us to associate actors of color with roles they may not have traditionally been given the chance to play, but I found the device unnecessarily distancing when the play’s non-linearity and meta-theatricality already exerted a somewhat distancing effect, especially given the fact that the characters didn’t seem to have anything in particular in common with their namesakes. 

But Midsummer’s own themes of fantasy, illusion, and how the overlay of the mind can make it impossible for us to accurately perceive reality makes it an appropriate pairing for this successor, in which each character is given the chance to reflect on how they are seen, how they see themselves, and how they think others see them. 

Chasity Hart and Matthew Salas

Notably, this examination includes a deep dive into colorism as well as into racism in a broader sense. A light-skinned black woman and an Afro-latina woman speak about being considered too ethnic for some parts but not ethnic enough for others, a white-passing Latina is caught between guilt over her relative privilege and offense at having her identity ignored, and a Latina immigrant talks of the emotional whiplash of going from being perceived as “white” in her home country to being perceived as a foreigner “other” here.

While not all of these asides were especially original or revelatory, they still conveyed an important message, and were made plenty engaging by the overall incredible cast. Standouts include Vanessa Tomayo as Ophelia, who ably conveys her character’s surface uncertainty as well as her inner fire, and Erin Christine Wilbanks, who nails the part of the overly enthusiastic white “Actress.” 

Erin Wilbanks and Roderick Randle

Wilbanks lent her over the top energy to several memorable comedic exchanges, but also rose to the occasion when delivering a more serious monologue after an oversight leads her to say something unintentionally offensive to a castmate of color. 

It’s an interesting moment, but when, later, the Director gets his own white-guilt-ridden soliloquy, I couldn’t help but feel that these two’s whining was taking a little too much stage time away from the characters of color whose stories the play existed to highlight. But, of course, maybe highlighting the tendency of white characters to forcibly take the spotlight even in conversations that were intended to de-center them was part of the point.

Another focus of Shakespeare is a White Supremacist is on how easily microaggressions, real or perceived, can infiltrate in the theatrical space, For instance, the power dynamic of director-above-cast becomes a dangerous one when a white director presides over a cast made up of mostly people of a color, as a simple request to drop a voice or emphasize the anger could easily become incredibly loaded.

In the part of this Director, though, Matthew Salas seemed neither quite old enough nor authoritative enough, as his slight frame and anxious energy seemed quite at odds with the intimidating and over-cocky “white man in power” archetype that his character seemed written to represent. Notably, given that the Director’s romantic relationship with one of the play-within-a-play’s actresses is a significant source of inter-cast tension, Salas also lacked any real chemistry with Katlin Svadbik’s Viola, though she held her own in her part. 

But Salas’s aura of genuineness and uncertainty does lend more sincerity to his character’s claims that any damage his words had done was entirely unintentional. As Midsummer’s Theseus reflects on how easily, in darkness, a bush is supposed a bear, nowadays, a well-meaning white Director can become a monster when the baggage of a thousand years of oppression is overlaid onto his unthinkingly insensitive comments. 

But so, too, and with far graver consequences, could a black man be supposed a threat simply because of the color of his skin and the pervasive negative cultural stereotypes that surround it. One of the strongest and most affecting moments of the piece comes from the character of “Macbeth,” played by Roderick Randle, who is the only man of color in the majority-female cast as well as the darkest-skinned member of the ensemble. 

When he breaks away into his own soliloquy, it’s to talk about the emotional cost of his constant efforts to be perceived as the “nicest guy in the room” at all times to protect himself from these biased assumptions as well as from the physical violence that the worst of them might bring about.

Katlin Svadbik

Since Randle has already gotten us on his character’s side with his charismatic, friendly, and jocular air in earlier portions of the script, this revelation of the fear, pain, and trauma that underlies his constant “performance” is all the more cutting. 

For all the questions that Shakespeare Is A White Supremacist raises, it offers no easy answers, or, really, answers at allbecause both we as a theatre community and we as a society are still in deep, painful search for them. But it does suggest that listening to each other more openly and having the kinds of honest conversations about colorism and racism that Shakespeare Is A White Supremacist could foster is indeed some sort of a first step.

And as for the play’s inflammatory title? Though a character does speak the line during one of her monologues, the issue is never really argued or explored in any real depth, with the play’s focus firmly turned on the white supremacy going on in this century rather than on whether the bard was or wasn’t racially biased himself. But if this attention grabbing moniker drums up interest in this stunning show and the powerful ideas it does explore, maybe there’s no use wondering if this Shakespeare-inspired sensation by any other name would smell as sweet. 

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