7. Implications for Pedagogy
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 As these are our students who are grappling with performances of Shakespeare, performances of race, appropriations of popular culture, and appropriations of interactivity in the public forum of the internet, then we—as educators, parents, and practitioners—must ask what roles we play, and what roles we should play, in these negotiations and deliberations. Peggy O’Brien, for example, documents the change in Shakespearean pedagogical practices at the end of the twentieth century. “In the early eighties,” she writes, “numerous books and articles on the teaching of Shakespeare through performance began to find their way into print.” By 1995, when O’Brien was writing, she claims the “work on the teaching of Shakespeare has virtually exploded onto the marketplace much of it advocating student performance.” Many of us encourage our students to experience the text through performance, but two pedagogical challenges have been left largely unaddressed. First, there is the challenge of casting with (or without) regards to race when pedagogical practices turn “classrooms into rehearsal spaces,” to return to Samuel Crowl’s phrase. And second, in the twenty-first century, there is the challenge of addressing the ways the performances that result from our classroom assignments may have public afterlives on the internet.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Frequently, pedagogical pieces about Othello focus on the difficulties of addressing race in the classroom: both in terms of the historical complexities of early modern notions of race (they are not exactly like our own) and in terms of the particular climate of a specific classroom with regards to race (no class will be exactly the same). For example, Leila Christenbury writes that “race matters” both in the play and in the classroom, and, therefore, it is the teacher’s job to initiate and facilitate these discussions no matter how difficult they may be. Likewise, Louisa Foulke Newlin and Mary Winslow Poole warn, “Some students may be uncomfortable with the complex racial issues raised by the play, and you may have to devote time to creating a climate in which students can trust each other enough to speak honestly about them.” And finally, Husna Choudhury writes a heartbreaking account of her experiences and struggles teaching Othello in a diverse school in the U.K., where class, race, and religious tensions made a discussion of Othello’s exact color fraught. While these pieces address how “In Othello, the boundary between Self and Other is famously, and perilously, permeable,” they elide what has been described as the predominant pedagogical practice of the late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century: performance-based lessons.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 The pedagogical books and essays related to Shakespeare and performance-based approaches are somewhat deceptive. Although many have titles that imply that race and casting issues are addressed, they are not addressed in terms of the students’ performance-based projects produced in the classroom. For example, Miranda Johnson-Haddad’s essay, “Teaching Othello through Performance Choices,” is a wonderful piece about how teachers can inspire students to analyze performance choices in contemporary theatre and film productions. She raises a slate of provocative questions that teachers can and should address about non-traditional casting, like “if a casting choice seems clearly intended to be color-blind, yet we are having trouble ignoring the actor’s race, does the responsibility for this lie with us or with the director?” Johnson-Haddad’s essay is foundational in the way it prompts teachers to address casting with regards to race. Yet she goes on to note, somewhat apologetically, that this “performance-oriented approach to teaching . . . frequently proves to be an anecdotal approach.” What seems clear to me is that this approach is “anecdotal” precisely because it is not tied to the performance practices employed in the classroom. Instead, it is only about the anecdotes the teacher provides from performances outside the classroom; the anecdote is emphasized because the practical is elided.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 2 Even book collections devoted to teaching Shakespeare through performance rehearse this strange elision. The incredibly helpful and widely-employed “Shakespeare Set Free” series produced by the Folger Shakespeare Library, for example, provides unit calendars, lesson plans, and homework assignments—all based on teaching Shakespeare through the act of performing. The Othello unit does address race in multiple, complex ways, but it veers away from addressing the implications of race and casting in the classroom. Instead the unit entitled, “‘The Moor is Far More Fair Than Black’: The Politics of Casting,” is reserved for an historical presentation of the differences between performances of “tawny Moors” and “blackamoors.” There are no lesson plans that discuss how, or if, race will affect the ways the students will, or should, cast their own performances of Othello. There are no lesson plans that frame how to discuss how, or if, casting decisions will affect the students in the class. There are no lesson plans that even mention that casting is never a racially neutral act (even when casting other Shakespearean plays). Thus while the general consensus seems to be that performance-based approaches to teaching Shakespeare are beneficial because they “heuristically make possible insights and contexts that are readily available in no other way,” the theories and methodologies of pedagogy have not yet acknowledged that “interactive” approaches always impact notions of self and other.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 1 As Hugh Macrea Richmond warns, Othello is an unusually abject character because the audience has more knowledge than the titular figure: “Perhaps a more accurate title for the play would be Iago, acknowledging that, because of our superior knowledge of the plot, we can never identify fully with Othello’s mistaken point of view.” This information should impact the way we teach Othello through performance. We must ask what it means to ask a student—especially a student of color—to play an abject character to whom the audience feels superior. The current pedagogical blindspot as it relates to the dynamics of race and performance in the classroom itself makes an “ethical relationship with Othello the character and Othello the play” difficult to achieve.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Thus I want to offer an ethical approach to performance-based Shakespeare pedagogy because discussions about race need to be built into the curriculum in more tangible and immediate ways. It is not enough to leave discussions about race to the “race plays” of distant history like Othello. The complex web of issues that surrounds casting, race, and performance is evident whenever performance-based models are employed. Even when the plays themselves are not usually deemed “race plays,” the social, racial, and class politics of the particular classroom will not only impact who is assumed to be suitable as a lover, fool, and everyman figure, but also who sees him/herself as suitable to play a particular role. In other words, performance is never a race neutral act for anyone of any race.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 I see an ethical approach as having aspects from some of the scholars mentioned above, but also as moving the dialogue in more practical and democratic ways. To begin, an ethical approach would frame race in social and historical contexts: the way the lesson plan in the “Shakespeare Set Free” series enumerates. By providing examples about how different roles have been interpreted racially throughout history, this approach encourages students to recognize the social dimensions to racial formation, casting, and perceptions of talent. In other words, it is important to convey that the ways race and talent are defined, identified, and determined are neither universal nor timeless: the notions of race and talent are always socially constructed.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Then an ethical approach would encourage the students to identify that there are two basic casting models that can be labeled, roughly, as traditional and non-traditional: this resembles the model Johnson-Haddad describes. To be more specific, in traditional casting models, actors of color are either not employed at all in classical productions, or they are employed only as the “spear carrier”—that is, a minor, non-speaking, background role—because actors of color were not originally employed in these roles. In other words, traditional casting models are heavily impacted by notions of the history of original casting practices.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Non-traditional casting, on the other hand, is an umbrella term for productions that employ actors of color in classical productions. Within this umbrella category, there are radically different models of casting. While in secondary schools there might not be the time to delve into these different types of non-traditional casting, in college and university settings it seems entirely appropriate to analyze the ways these approaches assume different ways of seeing and interpreting the social and performative meanings of an actor’s race.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Finally, after informing students of these different models, and providing examples of these models in practice, an ethical approach to performance-based teaching would enable the students to debate and decide what models they want to employ in their own performances in class. As I have argued elsewhere, more often than not a colorblind approach to casting is employed in educational settings, but we should empower the students to make an informed decision when they cast their performance-based projects. By including this democratic process into performance-based pedagogy, we will require our students to think more deeply about the roles performance plays in our social, cultural, and racial constructions.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 2 Returning to the three YouTube videos that I highlight in this essay, I think an ethical approach to performance-based teaching would have equipped the students to think more critically about their racial and cultural relationships with Shakespeare, the Shakespearean text, and Shakespearean performance. All three videos, for example, implicitly acknowledge the Asian and Asian-American students’ racial and cultural distance from the text by performing Moorish-ness as gangsta/gangster. These videos all have wonderfully productive moments of fissure: like the linking of Titus with the blurred racial border between gangsta/gangster cultures; like the re-writing of Othello with the silent Cypriots revolting; like the explicit declaration that Othello’s tragic ending is “stupid.” While the ways these students’ challenge Shakespeare’s universality and timelessness is refreshing, and while their performances are original and entertaining, their performances of blackness are nevertheless regressive, limiting, and ultimately un-original. An ethical approach to performance-based pedagogy might have enabled them to explore their relationship with a performance of Moorish-ness/blackness in more productive ways. Moreover, it might have equipped them to address the critical textual comments posted to their YouTube videos: that is, the comments that challenge their appropriations of gangsta culture as a type of “identity tourism.”
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 This brings me to the other challenge we face when employing performance-based approaches in the twenty-first-century classroom: many of our students choose to upload their performances to video-sharing websites like YouTube, thereby, enabling these performances to have long public afterlives. The importance of internet interactivity, of course, is that it is interactive, and dialogues and debates occur across the borders of nation, race, ethnicity, sexuality, age, class, physical ability, etc. Part of an ethical approach to performance-based approaches to Shakespearean pedagogy is to emphasize to our students that performances are public events, but performances on the internet are public events that occur and reoccur across these borders for long periods of time. An ethical approach to performance-based teaching should also create a space for us to discuss the complex dimensions of the internet’s public nature and the complex dimensions of interactivity.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 2 When discussing the social and historical contexts of casting, one could employ performance clips from YouTube to analyze the comments posted to the videos. For example, there is a fascinating textual dialogue about Laurence Olivier’s use of black makeup posted to a YouTube clip from the 1965 film. While some praise Olivier as “*the* Shakespearian actor,” others critique his use of “blackface,” and still others debate whether it technically qualifies as “blackface”: “Blackface refers to a specific style of makeup, used in minstrel shows, accenting stereotypical ‘black’ features. Painting one’s skin a darker color to play a black person is not (should not be) generally considered blackface, because the performance itself might be perfectly respectful, as in this case.” Alerting students to how fraught the dialogue and debates are, we can also remind the students that any of their own videos posted to the internet can inspire similar debates about race, culture, and performance.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 1 We might also seek to harness the interactivity of YouTube by inviting our students to create textual and/or video responses to other videos. In fact, as more student performances of Shakespeare are uploaded to YouTube, we should enable our own student productions to involve metacritical and intermedial responses to performances that have come before. By doing so, we can teach critical viewing skills (i.e., the skills needed to analyze film critically), and we can also emphasize the public nature of internet postings and the power of interactivity (i.e., the dynamic power of response and dialogue across time and space). What I hope is clear at this concluding junction in this essay is that I disabled the reader’s ability to interact with these videos (by concealing the exact URL’s for the videos) not only to protect the identities’ of the minors involved, but also to highlight the ethical and methodological implications of our interpretative and pedagogical strategies.
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Looking at the three sample YouTube videos analyzed in this essay, one may be tempted to read them in terms of the stereotype of Asian Americans fetishizing and appropriating black cultural production: they are cultural consumers instead of cultural producers. While these videos demonstrate how easily, and frequently, cultural appropriation occurs in performance, I also see how Shakespeare’s and Othello’s position within these performances complicates a simplistic approach to “identity tourism.” Even though there are aspects of regression, there are also stark moments of resistance. My hope is that educators will foster the resistance while deconstructing the need, desire, and ease of regressive performances. The internet as a medium may provide the best vehicle to accomplish this unmooring.