For a long time the only chance someone of African descent had of starring in a Shakespeare tragedy was the title role of Othello, and even that was off-limits when the role was played (as it often was) by a white actor in blackface.
Not only has that thankfully changed, but Broadway is currently seeing its first interracial Romeo and Juliet with Orlando Bloom as Romeo and Condola Rashad as Juliet. Condola is the daughter of The Cosby Show actress Phylicia Rashad and has already had roles on Broadway, film and television since she begin acting in 2009.
She spoke to NPR about the relationship actors of African descent have with Shakespeare and what sets her production of the well-known play apart from centuries of others.
Rashad points out that Shakespeare’s English origins kept it inherently separate from actors of African descent in some ways, but Shakespeare is truly universal. She explains, “Black people have been performing Shakespeare for years. … But I do believe that there are certain things that black people are taught, whether it is from their own people or other people. They’re taught to believe that there are certain things that are just not for them, and that it’s not their reality, it’s not their world. But it could be. Shakespeare is for everybody.”
The interracial portrayal isn’t the only difference from standard productions of the play. Rashad says that the production plays up the humor in order to make the deaths of the leads all the more tragic. She explains, “I think often there can be productions of it where it’s played as a tragedy from the very beginning, and that’s not our production. Our production, the way we go about it is: In order for anybody in the audience to feel the full impact of these young lovers’ death at the end – sorry, spoiler alert, but I think a lot of us know what happens – you have to be able to fall in love with their lives first. You have to be excited to watch them live in order to really feel sad when they die. And so our first act is basically a romantic comedy. It’s not false, it’s not something we’re putting on top of the text to make it funnier. But if you actually just look at the text, it actually is quite hilarious. Some boy just jumps into this girl’s garden. There’s nothing perfect about that. It’s romantic in a very clumsy way.”