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Casting snub for black actors in Shakespeare: theatre stars react

Noma Dumezweni in Linda at the Royal Court, in which she replaced Kim Cattrall. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Noma Dumezweni in Linda at the Royal Court, in which she replaced Kim Cattrall. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Actors Noma Dumezweni, Paterson Joseph and Cynthia Erivo have hailed a new database of Shakespeare productions that exposes how black and Asian performers are “ghettoised” into second-tier roles.

Branded “shocking” by Joseph, the database reveals many supporting Shakespearean roles have been played twice as often by black, Asian and minority ethnic actors as the lead roles in the same play.

While the database demonstrates clear growth in the number of BAME Shakespeare roles over the past 85 years, the casting of minority actors in lead roles remains rare.

Speaking to The Stage, Joseph said he imagined there had been many more BAME Hamlets and Macbeths.

“I would have thought that perhaps after the 1980s it would have changed, but it doesn’t seem to have done in any major way. So that is shocking,” he said.

Describing the research as “gratifying”, he added: “Anecdotally, we’ve talked about it, but seeing it in that official way is a reassurance that we’re not imagining our ghettoisation into the more minor roles.”

The British Black and Asian Shakespeare Performance Database details the casts of 1,189 Shakespearean productions dating back to 1930.

It reveals that Laertes and Ophelia have been played by BAME actors 14 times in productions of Hamlet, compared with the title role being played just six times.

In Macbeth, BAME performers are most often cast as one of the witches (42 occasions) or Banquo (24 occasions), and have played Macbeth only 12 times and Lady Macbeth nine times.

Jami Rogers, who headed up the research by the University of Warwick, claimed it highlighted a “massive failure in imagination” by directors and casting directors.

She explained: “Ethnic minority actors don’t seem to be nurtured up the casting tree. They’re sort of confined to second-tier best friend roles, or small servant roles, or roles that are ‘exotic’ like the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Dumezweni – recently cast as Hermione in the West End's upcoming Harry Potter play – said she hoped to see a significant uplift in lead BAME roles.

She explained: “This is a time of making that happen. Many more young actors of colour are about than when I started – that's where the present and future shift is going to happen.”

Praising the database, she added: “To see those who look like me reminds me where we've been, what more we can do, and how much further we can go in sharing the art of storytelling. You're not on your own – that's what the BBA database informs me.”

Erivo, who played Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Liverpool Everyman and the lead in The Color Purple on Broadway, told The Stage there was “no excuse” for the stagnating casting patterns.

She said: “I don't know why this hasn't changed over time. There's no real excuse and there's a wonderful multicultural pool of talent to choose from.

"I’d love to play Cleopatra or Lady Macbeth or Hermione, but I don't know how sure I am that there will ever be a chance of that happening. I hope I'm wrong.”

Meanwhile, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, actor and National Theatre associate artist, said a new Hamlet that “doesn’t fit the regular mould is quite rare”, which he described as “sad”.

As well as listing historical data, the British Black and Asian Shakespeare Performance Database will continue to be updated with casting information from new Shakespearean productions and adaptations.

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