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Weyward Macbeth: Intersections of Race and Performance.
Edited by Scott L. Newstok and Ayanna Thompson. Palgrave MacMillan, 2010. Pp. 288.

Reviewer: Dr. Glenda E. Gill,
Michigan Technological University

(January 2010 Issue / PDF)

For those who think they know something about non-traditional casting, this book of essays defies the imagination with its scope and comprehensiveness. Focusing mainly on many different productions of Shakespeare’s Macbeth since the l9th century, the two-dozen contributors examine how Macbeth informs film, theatre, hip-hop, music, history, politics, poetry, posters, essays, drama, acting, and directing. The chapters are grouped under several parts: PART I: Beginnings; PART II: Early American Intersections; Part III: Federal Theatre Project (s); PART IV: Further Stages; PART V: Music; PART VI: Screen; PART VII: Shakespearean (A) Versions. There is an epilogue and an excellent appendix of selected productions. The bibliography is rich and long. Ayanna Thompson in the opening chapter answers the question, “What is a “weyward” Macbeth?”

The non-traditional productions covered also include Asian, Native American, Hispanic, and African-American forays into an interpretation of The Bard. Orson Welles’s famed l936 Federal Theatre production of the voodoo Macbeth is placed in iconic context. There is also an excellent appendix of performances including dates, directors and other important ephemera. Essays come from undergraduate students, graduate students, younger faculty, seasoned professors, theatre practitioners, a composer, one adjunct professor and emeriti. Several striking visuals enhance the book, including the 1977 signed Romare Bearden poster of Woodie King Jr.’s revival of the l936 Macbeth.

Several bits of information intrigued me. As a person who grew up on a historically black college campus, I was struck with how many performances of Macbeth occurred on those stages from the very early twentieth century into the twenty-first: Spelman College in Atlanta, Atlanta University, Dillard in New Orleans, Talladega College in Talladega, Alabama; Howard University in Washington, D. C., Florida A. and M. University in Tallahassee, Tennessee State University in Nashville, and Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. In historically black colleges, some of the directors are legendary: Lillian Voorhees, James W. Butcher, Anne Cook, and Owen Dodson.

"Part II: Early American Intersections" features five compelling chapters. Heather S. Nathans in "'Blood Will Have Blood' Violence, Slavery and Macbeth in the Antebellum Imagination" states, “The play (Macbeth) was ubiquitous in antebellum American culture.” In the Civil War, Nathans informs us that northern abolitionists invoked the play against southern slaveholders. She gives much discussion to the Astor Place Riot of May 10, 1849 where British actor William Macready was appearing in the title role of Macbeth. American actor, Edwin Forrest, Macready’s rival, had protested Macready’s performance. Violence occurred among Forrest’s fans, and l00 people died in the worst theatre riot inAmerican history. John Briggs analyses how Frederick Douglass frequently appropriated Shakespeare, including Macbeth. Bernth Lindfors writes about how the great nineteenth century actor of color Ira Aldridge played Macbeth often to critical acclaim. Joyce Green MacDonald tells of a “Minstrel Show Macbeth” and Nick Moschovakis observes allusions to Macbeth in W. E. B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk, Ida B. Wells’s speeches, Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die,” Countee Cullen’s “Mood,” and Leslie Pinckney Hill’s Toussaint L’Ouverture: A Dramatic History.

Readers will be pleased to know that there is a Shakespeare Behind Bars. While a great deal of non-traditional casting is emphasized from the perspective of minority racial groups, Roman Polanski’s film of Macbeth focused on whiteness. Readers probably are familiar with the 1936 Federal Theatre Macbeth, but probably not the l935 one in Boston.

How Macbeth connected to music would be of interest to many readers, from various performances of Verdi’s Macbeth featuring Simon Estes, George Shirley, Shirley Verrett, GraceBumbry and other African American opera singers to Duke Ellington’s Lady Mac and Such Sweet Thunder. There are a number of hip-hop Macbeths in and out of the digital world.

Intersections between various genres of literature and Macbeth are also examined. Philip C. Kolin “explores how Macbeth has, paradoxically, both repressed and represented an African American experience in plays by Adrienne Kennedy, Ntozake Shange, August Wilson, and Suzan-Lori Parks” (212). Repeatedly invoked are the words of poet Langston Hughes in “Note on Commercial Theatre”: “You’ve taken my blues and gone. . . You put me in Macbeth. . . And in everything but what’s about me.”

This extraordinary collection of essays is essential for every student and teacher of Shakespeare. It is exceptional reading with astonishing new information for anyone wishing to keep remarkably abreast of what is happening in American culture.