Eds. Scott L. Newstok and Ayanna Thompson. Weyward Macbeth: Intersections of Race and Performance.
It turns out that Macbeth, even more than The Tempest or Othello, may be the Shakespearean production that speaks most directly and frequently to the history of race in the United States. Such a claim rests on significantly more than Orson Welles's famous Federal Theatre Project production of "Voodoo Macbeth" in 1936. As the twenty-six essays collected in Weyward Macbeth: Intersections of Race and Performance demonstrate, Macbeth's historical engagement with American racial epistemologies began with the first documented Shakespearean drama performed in the colonies (in 1699) and continues as an ongoing project today. In this volume, Welles's production is at once decentered and returned to a deep and rich performance history that refigures the play's "weyward" relationship to American racial identity. and liberation politics. Weyward Macbeth originated as a symposium at Rhodes College in 2008 organized by co-editor Scott Newstok, and the essays retain the length and accessibility of conference presentations. This is a great strength of the collection, as it successfully weaves multiple disciplines, voices, visions, and approaches into a coherent and singular project. It is a model of collaborative performance history, bringing together Shakespeareans, filmmakers, musicologists, actors, poets, Americanists, historians, media studies scholars, composers, directors, undergraduate students, and community organizers to map Macbeth's unexpected, discontinuous, and allusive paths in the United States.
The essays are arranged loosely chronologically, tracing the intertwined relationship between Macbeth and race from its early American enactments and allusions, to its early twentieth-century appropriations, through the legacy of Welles's production, and to contemporary theatrical, musical, cinematic, and poetic adaptations. It looks toward the twenty-first century with an epilogue about racial narratives, Macbeth, and President Obama, and includes an impressive appendix of "Selected Productions of Macbeth Featuring Non-Traditional Casting." Rarely is a collection of essays so focused and yet so broad, so comprehensive, and yet so intellectually open-ended. Any one of the essays on its own would be a respectable contribution to the study of race and Shakespeare, but it is in their collective resonance with and across each other, their symphonic ambition, that the volume's significance lays.
In an important essay that opens the collection, Celia Daileader establishes the transmogrifying potential of Macbeth as something immanent in its invention. She tracks Macbeth's textual history and literary borrowings, finding the seeds for Macbeth's racial germination in the authorial hybridity produced when Thomas Middleton added the gender-indeterminate witches--the "weird sisters" who were in earlier versions "weyward sisters"--to Shakespeare's text after his death. Middleton and Shakespeare both drew from Renaissance moral vocabularies that employed rhetoric of lightness and darkness. But in the text that we know as Macbeth, Daileader finds that "Macbeth's demonized--and sexualized--rhetorical darkness is a distinctly Shakespearean feature, while the play's potential for vivid theatricality, its elements of pageantry and carnival, seem owing to Middleton" (19). This internal tension, combined with the introduction of the weyward sisters and their "anarchic power," she contends, establishes the conditions for the future racial appropriations of the play in the U. S. context (15).
This textual porousness, carnivalesque spirit, and thematic reverberation made Macbeth especially open to cultural appropriation in antebellum America. As co-editor Ayanna Thompson puts it in the introduction, "the play's very rhetoric of blood and staining informs--or seeps into--early American racial rhetoric as well" (4). Following the introduction, the volume's second section traces Macbeth as it appeared in minstrel olios and blackface skits, in black actor Ira Aldridge's world tour of the play, in political tracts and oratory by Southern and Northern politicians alike, and in work by abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. Throughout the antebellum public sphere, "Out, damned spot!" was uttered to indict the Constitution itself, marked with the stain of slavery, and Banquo's ghost was appropriated as a moral symbol by both abolitionists and proslavery advocates. Proslavery writers compared female abolitionists to Lady Macbeth for their "unwomanly behavior." Macbeth appears in these accounts as more than just a reference point for political and cultural debate. Rather, it was a structuring apparatus for enforcing or destabilizing American epistemologies of race, blood, and purity.
The mongrel Macbeth of early nineteenth-century America, argues Heather Nathans in an especially strong essay, "became white" with the 1849 Astor Place Riot, when New York City's working-class white ethnic multitude claimed Macbeth violently for itself. Nonetheless, Macbeth was taken up again and again by black writers, activists, and artists. Nick Moschovakis's essay on the "problematics of allusive identification" identifies two ways of viewing the play as it was taken up by black writers such as Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Melvin Tolson. On the one hand, Macbeth offered a "dualistic" morality, presenting a "universal moral touchstone, praising good and damning evil." On the other hand, there was a "morally problematic" Macbeth, which saw "moral conflict and ambiguity as an effect of competing social interests" (66). These readings allowed African American authors to invoke the dualistic Macbeth to denounce slavery, Jim Crow, and racism (as in Du Bois's allusion to Banquo's ghost in Souls of Black Folk) and the problematic Macbeth to advocate black freedom struggles, thus identifying with and transvaluing Macbeth's audacity, ambition, and insurgency (as in Wells-Barnett's identification with Macbeth in a 1917 address). Similarly, Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps, and Leslie Pinckney Hill drew on this problematic Macbeth in their respective tellings of the Haitian revolution. Such literary, theatrical, and oratorical allusions were important ways that Macbeth circulated in an American racial consciousness prior to Welles's "Voodoo Macbeth."
The Welles production occupies an uneasy place in this collection, reflecting its uneasy place in the history of African American theatre. It is accorded an entire section of essays, and a well-known photograph from its premiere adorns the cover. Yet the essays dedicated to it undermine the centrality of the Welles production to the project of Weyward Macbeth. Filmmaker Lisa Simmons describes her research on a 1935 black-cast version of Macbeth in Boston that opened six months before Welles's Harlem production. Marguerite Rippy critiques Welles's primitivism and the heroic narratives that turned the production into a demonstration of the director's "white genius." And Newstok describes the challenges and possibilities of "re-doing" Macbeth after Welles, tracing its afterlife in subsequent black-cast productions. The Welles production, as Newstok describes it, provides "grooves" for subsequent generations that nonetheless "can at times feel like ruts" (98).
The second half of the collection takes up this afterlife in contemporary stage, film, poetry, music, and television. This also marks a concomitant shift in method, as film studies, auto-ethnography, dramaturgical analysis, and musicology replace the historical approaches that dominated the first half of the collection. Director Lenwood Sloan provides a detailed account of his collaborative Vo-Du Macbeth (2001-2005) that sought to revive the Welles production as "a parable about power and the manipulation of power" set in 1863 New Orleans, translating the play into the Code Noir and the complex color nomenclature of Creole New Orleans (105). Actor Harry Lennix describes a 2007 Los Angeles production that staged the play in a figurative location named "Dred Scotland" and that aimed to develop the utility of Shakespeare's themes for African American experiences (117). These are just two of the seven essays written by artists, actors, directors, or composers about their attempts to adapt Macbeth for new contexts. The inclusion of these voices sets this anthology apart from others and provides invaluable considerations of Macbeth's continuing relevance for understanding race and American history.
While the volume is largely concerned with Macbeth and blackness, there are also discussions of recent productions that use Macbeth in an Asian American context (John C. Briggs's Shogun Macbeth), circum-Pacific contexts (Juneau's Perseverance Theatre's Macbeth, which incorporated Tlingit language and cultural forms, and the University of Hawai'i's Macbeth), and a Latino context (Teatro La Tea's Macbeth 2029), as well as a beautiful essay by Francesca Royster that examines whiteness in Roman Polanski's 1971 film version of Macbeth. These contributions--and others on Duke Ellington, Verdi, hip hop, Grey's Anatomy, Obama, and contemporary black drama and poetry--reveal an imaginative, inventive relationship between U. S. racial histories and Macbeth that seems, now that it has been pointed out, everywhere.
Reviewed by Shane Vogel, Indiana University