Shakespeare's (Harlem) Renaissance and Beyond

Though William Shakespeare wrote his works during a time period known as the English Renaissance, which lasted from the early 1500s to the early 1600s, that would not be the last Renaissance they were associated with. During the decades following the end of World War One, an intellectual, cultural, and artistic revival of the African American community occurred in New York City, particularly in the Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan. This was the time period where such famous figures as the poet Langston Hughes, writer Zora Neale Hurston, and musician Louis Armstrong got their starts. Arts of all kinds were blossoming with the influx of people to the city from all over the country and all over the world, and the theater was no exception. And where there is theater, or at least English-speaking theater, there is bound to be Shakespeare.


Shakespeare had been a part of African American theater traditions since as far back as the 1820s, when a group of free African Americans in New York, known as the African Company, put on shows of Richard III. So, by the time that Swingin’ the Dream came out in 1939, a jazz adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare would have been extremely familiar to African Americans involved with the theater. But unfortunately, Swingin’ the Dream was something of a Broadway Flop. Another Shakespeare adaptation, Voodoo Macbeth, did better but was subject to criticism that its use of African American actors, dressed up with spear and bones in their noses, was exploitative and demeaning. Opinion within the African American community was split, many people went to see the show and enjoyed it, while others thought that it appealed to White prejudices and failed to show how the community was on its own terms. After the Harlem Renaissance, during the 1960s Shakespeare came to be associated with colonialism. Student activists shut down classes and productions, and instead dedicated resources to productions that were “By us and for us.” A Black Shakespeare company was started with the Public Theater, but it received a lot of negative press from both White and Black critics.



In recent years the legacy of Shakespeare has returned to Harlem. In 1999 the Classical Theatre of Harlem was founded with a mission to “reflect a diversity of ideas, invite transformative conversation, and inspire social change.” In the last decade they have put on several different Shakespeare productions, such as A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest, and Macbeth.

Sources

Shakespeare in the Harlem Renaissance - https://www.folger.edu/shakespeare-unlimited/harlem-renaissance-giles

Classical Theatre of Harlem - https://www.cthnyc.org

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The New York Times

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