African Americans and Shakespeare: Partners in Search of Humanity

byBarbara McDowell Dowdall
Unbeknownst to the vast majority of average Americans — and certainly to average high school students — is the fact that a long and distinguished roster of African American actors, professional and amateur, embraced the language and characters of William Shakespeare, audaciously challenging a society that denied both their humanity and intellectual abilities. The wealth of material, both printed and electronic, that is available for research in these lives, dating back to the early 19th century career of the black actor Ira Aldridge, can stimulate student interest both in American social and literary history and in the Bard of Avon himself. High school students will study the narratives of Othello and The Merchant of Venice — plays presciently modern in depicting individuals cast as 'other' — analyze speeches that bring these characters to life and evaluate how these roles evolved through the ages. Student performance of key scenes and soliloquies, the display of timelines exhibiting the interplay between actors' lives and African American history, and published poster or mini-book biographies of the actors will serve as assessment.

(Developed for English II, grade 10, English IV and AP English Literature, grade 12; recommended for English, grades 10-12)

Comments (2)

    ,Barbara McDowell Dowdall (A. Philip Randolph Career Academy, Philadelphia, PA)
    Subject taught: English, Grade: 12
    African Americans and Shakespeare: Partners in the Search for Humanity
    A newly-published additional resource:

    Newstok, Scott L. and Ayanna Thompson, ed. Weyward Macbeth: Intersections of Race and Performance. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. A fascinating collection of essays on this topic going back to colonial times and including material on the Federal Theater, music, and film renderings. Langston Hughes said "You put me in Macbeth...and in everything but what's about me."
    Barbara McDowell Dowdall (A. Philip Randolph Career Tech HS, Phila, PA)
    Subject taught: English, Grade: 12
    Correction omission from Starter List
    Denzel Washington of course for current Oscar-nominated film “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” but also
    Othello (senior year in college)
    Coriolanus 1979
    Richard III 1990
    Much Ado About Nothing. 1993
    Julius Caesar. 2005

Send us your comment