4. Titus Andronicus as an American Gangster/Gangsta
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 2 Although it might seem counterintuitive to use performances of Shakespeare to analyze contemporary perceptions, performances, constructions, and appropriations of race, his ubiquity in the American educational canon, and the central positioning of Othello within that canon in twentieth- and twenty-first-century classrooms, creates a unique opportunity to delve into Generation M’s digestion of both the canon and constructions of race. It is important to assess how much agency, how much freedom to be truly interactive, students of color have when processing the racial politics inside, and outside of, Shakespeare. I specifically did not want to focus on adolescent African Americans performing in Othello because Shakespeare has been so thoroughly “naturalised” as American that Shakespeare’s Moors are often assumed to be no different from African Americans. My college students often treat and discuss Shakespeare’s Moors as the cultural ancestors to African Americans. In fact, when searching for the proper word to describe Othello, my students frequently call him an “African American.” Therefore, I explore how Asian-American adolescents navigate these murky waters. What follows are analyses of three DIY YouTube video performances of Shakespeare by Asian-American students. Two focus specifically on Othello for the reasons I enumerate above. I begin, however, with a 2006 YouTube video performance of Titus Andronicus because it so neatly exemplifies the myriad issues at play in performances of Shakespeare, constructions of race, and interactions with cultural production. Again, I want to stress that these videos are discussed because they are representative of the production practices, methodological challenges, and pedagogical opportunities they reveal; they are not the exception but the norm.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The 2006 YouTube video of Titus Andronicus is performed by five Asian-American high school students, who, at the end of the video, make it explicit that this video stems from an assignment in their “Shakespeare ’06” class. In the comments posted to the video, someone states, “I really hope this was for some kind of class project and not what you guys do for fun,” and one of the participants responds, “Yes, this was a class project that we did one night. . . haha good times. . . gooood times.” The video is representative of many of the DIY school assignments posted to YouTube in that the students update the language of the play, while leaving the plot intact. This video is slightly different from the vast majority of high school assignments posted to YouTube, however, in that it shows a condensed version of the entire play instead of focusing on one or two specific scenes in isolation. While I will return to the pedagogical implications of these decisions at the end of this essay, here I focus on the ways the students navigate performing race in the video.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Running for a total of 13 minutes, the video condenses act one to one minute, act two to three minutes, acts three and four to three and a half minutes, and act five to four minutes. With three boys and two girls in the group, the students play multiple characters and identify their roles with white poster-board name tags that hang around their necks. So, for example, the student who plays Aaron also plays Lavinia. Because of their limited numbers (and time), the students chop many of the roles down to the bare bones (pardon the pun). Aaron’s role is significantly shortened, without any attempt to include his big speeches in acts two, three, or five. In fact, one of the comments added to the video page praises the video’s overall quality but questions the excision of these speeches: “Wow, this was amazing. My roommate and I were just watching this and you guys really summed it up pretty well. We were hoping for the ‘I have done thy mother’ line from Aaron, and his speech about killing 10,000 more. But this was still really cool. I loved it.” The center of this video performance, however, is clearly Titus Andronicus. The student who plays Titus appears in almost every scene, and it is his speeches that are maintained and updated the most scrupulously. While there are two comments posted that criticize the video—one explicitly states, “The language is insipid, child-like”—most of the posted comments praise the students’ understanding of the play and their ability to infuse it with humor—“haha this is really good—you’ve summarized the play really well and made it funny at the same time.”
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 5 If “interactivity is power,” to return to the adage used as one of the epigraphs for this essay, then it is clear the five students who uploaded this production of Titus Andronicus to YouTube are empowered. Although I cannot speak authoritatively as to whether all five of the students are equally conversant in technological interactivity, it is clear that at least one person in the group has film production skills. Not only is the video conceived and directed well (the use of multiple camera angles, for example, helps mask the fact that there are scenes in which one student is playing two roles), but also it is edited well (the white-washed fade away during the cutting of Lavinia’s hands is eerily effective). In addition, the video contains diverse musical overlays: from music montages (Radiohead blares over Lavinia’s rape scene), to music for emphasis behind the dialogue, to very brief musical interludes between scenes. The students also add textual emphases at various points: from introductory notes about “The Bard at his Bloody Best,” to subtitles when the dialogue is muddled, to extra-textual commentary (when Tamora is introduced, the screen reads, “Roman Emperor takes Evil Goth Lady as bride.”).
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 1 The video also reveals that the students have access to technological interactivity because they come from financially secure families. Like many of the DIY Shakespeare performance videos posted to YouTube, this video is filmed in the fully-furnished, well-appointed basement of a seemingly middle-to-upper-middle class household. There is a beautiful kimono hung on the wall in a glass case, a large and elaborate lacquer screen in the corner, and an enormous flat screen TV tucked within a wooden hutch. Although I understand that it is a dangerous generalization to assume that every one of the students is affluent based on the house in which the video is filmed, I think it important to recognize that at least one person in the group has the tools, skills, and resources necessary to make this video. In other words, these students seem to have the material means that facilitate and create access to interactivity.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 3 Despite the fact that all five of the students are Asian American, and despite the fact that the house is decorated with Asian art, the video’s clearest cultural markers are not Asian or Asian American at all. Rather, the video seems immersed in the cultural markers of white, middle-class America: that is, cultural markers that are often assumed to be neutral or just American, but which are, in fact, racially marked as white. The music included, I think, provides the clearest cultural landscape for this video: hear in your mind, Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins, Broken Social Scene, and Coldplay (there is one other band featured, but I will get to that in a moment). This play list could be featured on the satirist Christian Lander’s blog “Stuff White People Like.” In fact, Lander wrote a short piece for Vanity Fair entitled, “Stuff White People Like: Coldplay,” and he jokes that “By understanding a white person’s feelings toward the band, you can evaluate, recognize, and eventually exploit the type of white person you are dealing with.” The music is slightly edgy, slightly indie, but with absolutely no blues, Latin, or ethnic roots: that is, no clear influences by non-Western, non-white music. The music is so prevalent in the video—filling a total of six of the thirteen minutes—that it offers an aural landscape that draws attention to the ways these students are negotiating race.
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This aural landscape matches up with the students’ decision to have Titus as the focus of their performance. Unlike many of my students who revel in Aaron’s character and speeches, Aaron is barely present in this performance. Instead of allowing the student who plays Aaron to update his first speech in act two, the actor is provided with an onscreen textual blurb that reads simply, “Aaron the Moor: Tamora’s Dirty Lover.” Likewise, instead of an updated version of Aaron’s speech to Lucius in act five, an onscreen textual blurb appears declaring, “Aaron spills the beans on every evil deed done.” While the Goths and the Romans are not performed as being visually different from each other (in other words, the students do not try to emphasize the ethnic and racial differences between them performatively: they all wear the same casual American outfits of jeans, t-shirts, and hoodies), the student who plays Aaron does wear a black-and-white image of Laurence Fishburne’s face. Of course, Laurence Fishburne’s connection with black Shakespearean characters is well established through his portrayal of Othello in the 1995 film version. The fact that these students create a mask with Laurence Fishburne’s face instead of Harry J. Lennix’s, the black, American actor who played Aaron in Julie Taymor’s 1999 film Titus, may indicate that they are not familiar with the film. Clearly, the students want to separate Aaron from the rest of the cast visually, but in doing so, they rely on the notion that this visual mask says more about Aaron’s characterization than his long speeches convey. In a moment of comic levity, they even have Aaron’s baby outfitted in a Laurence Fishburne mask in miniature.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Thus, the students implicitly, and perhaps unconsciously, separate Aaron’s blackness from the Roman and Gothic whiteness and from their own racial identities, while the Roman and Gothic whiteness is not separated from their own racial identities. Performatively, this normalizes their own racial identities because “Roman” and “Gothic” are not visually or linguistically differentiated from the young Asian-American students who perform the roles. This is not to say that their Asian-ness is rendered invisible. On the contrary, the students’ Asian identities become the symbols—the faces and voices—for the universal condition, and, I think, this is an empowering move for the students. Yet it is important to recognize that this comes at a price: the complete alienation and distancing of blackness. While some may argue that the students are merely following the lead of the play itself—clearly, Titus Andronicus renders Aaron Other both visually and linguistically—the students do not challenge the racial politics of the play itself. Rather, their performances are empowered because they keep black as Other.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 There is one moment, however, in which the performance implicitly invites the audience to interrogate the play’s racial politics and the politics of contemporary American cultural production. Unlike Julie Taymor’s 1999 film Titus which alludes to Anthony Hopkins’s turn as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs when Titus appears to feed the “pasties” to Tamora, these students link Titus’s desire for revenge with black-gangsta culture. The student who plays Titus walks into the kitchen in slow motion. He is wearing an apron, but he struts towards the camera, slightly listing to one side while staring intently into the camera. The music dubbed to overlay this action is the Geto Boys’ 1992 gangsta-rap anthem, “Damn it Feels Good to be a Gangsta.” Known for initiating the popularity of the southern-style hip hop that blends soulful melodies with explicit lyrics about gangsta culture, the Geto Boys celebrate the authenticity of the “real gangsta-ass nigga.” Of course, the authenticity of racial and cultural identity is always unstable, and the desire to appropriate and perform another racial and cultural identity has endured through centuries of debates about identity politics, as critics like Judith Butler, Susan Gubar, E. Patrick Johnson, and Eric Lott have explored. What is fascinating about this moment in the performance of Titus Andronicus, however, is the way all of these issues suddenly bubble to the surface, destabilizing their racial constructions and American cultural productions.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 2 Visually, the students appear to be borrowing from, or alluding to, the iconic slow-motion, tough-guy, white gangster (not black gangsta) walk that Quentin Tarantino made famous at the beginning of his 1992 film Reservoir Dogs. The student’s Titus is as purposeful and menacing in his strut as Tarantino’s white gangsters are (played by Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, et al). But the employment of the Geto Boys’ music makes any racial separation between white/gangster and black/gangsta impossible. As many will remember, this Geto Boys song was employed in the 1999 cult comedy Office Space, in which a white executive exercises and exorcises his rage by blasting “Damn it Feels Good to be a Gangsta” during his commute to work. In fact, “Damn it Feels Good to be a Gangsta” explicitly uncouples black from gangsta culture (and even black from “nigga”) with lyrics like, “Now gangsta-ass niggas come in all shapes and colors,” and an ending verse that is supposedly voiced by the then President George H.W. Bush:
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Damn it feels good to be a gangsta
Getting voted into the White House
Everything looking good to the people of the world
But the Mafia family is my boss
. . .
To all you Republicans that helped me win
I sincerely like to thank you
Cuz now I got the world swingin’ from my nuts
And damn it feels good to be a gangsta
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 These lyrics point to an element of gangster/gangsta cultures that has been satirized in the pop-culture productions like Jackie Brown, The Sopranos, and Vibe magazine. Despite the fact that the notion of “authenticity” is important in gangster/gangsta cultures, they are highly imitative of each other. Both the Mafia-gangsters and black-gangstas pride themselves on being original, rooted in a specific culture, and performing culturally-rooted practices. Yet they emulate each other, while simultaneously disavowing the need to do so.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Although the Titus Andronicus performance video does not include these lyrics, the pairing of the song, the walk, and the plot (cooking two children into pies for their mother to eat) helps to destabilize simplistic understandings of race and cultural production. After all, this is a video that contains an Asian-American teenager, who is playing a Roman character, who was written by an Elizabethan Englishman, and through his performance this teenager is channeling a white director’s vision of white gangster culture—a director who is a self-described devotee of black culture—while adding the music of a black, southern, gangsta-rap band whose lyrics link “real gangsta-ass niggas” with white Republican presidents. As Lisa Nakamura argues, Asian-American youth are not usually constructed as the producers of fashionable, and, therefore, commodified, “youth culture.” And yet this moment in the YouTube Titus Andronicus effectively destabilizes the notion that any one race produces, owns, and/or controls culture: culture becomes a performance that can, and will, be appropriated by different people at different times.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 2 Shakespeare’s position in these Asian-American students’ construction (or deconstruction) of culture is central because the play is Titus Andronicus. Unlike Othello, which I turn to shortly, this play has not yet been effectively appropriated into the American cultural imagination as American. And unlike the character Othello, Aaron is neither widely known nor a character that is frequently linked with the plight of black Americans. For these Asian-American students, then, their updated version of Titus Andronicus exhibits both slight pangs of anxiety and great celebrations of freedom with regards to the constructions and performances of race. The pangs of anxiety are revealed through their employment of the Laurence Fishburne mask and, thus, their avoidance of blackface. What seems to lie behind this performance choice is the notion that blackness is Other and that performing blackness as Other is a politically and socially charged issue. Yet the great celebrations of freedom come from their deconstructions of gangster/gangsta cultures: the ways they signal both cultures as American, which necessarily includes them, as Asian Americans, as well.