Widgets Magazine

OPINIONS

Don’t de-racialize ‘The Tempest’

The recent TAPS production of “The Tempest” fell far short of the mark in its treatment of race. If you haven’t seen it, “The Tempest” is about Prospero, a sorcerer and the rightful duke of Milan, who lives in exile on a Caribbean island with his daughter and their slave, Caliban. The story revolves around a shipwreck of other European nobles on the island, and among the typical hijinks of an Elizabethan marriage plot, the European characters imagine the utopian possibilities of an empty new world (“Had I plantation of this isle, my lord … and were the king on ‘t, what would I do?”). Meanwhile, Caliban, the son of the witch who was the original inhabitant of the island, embodies the racialized “other” against the Europeans as a sort of ambiguous combination of the white imagining of Native Americans and of African slaves; prior to his enslavement, he actually taught Prospero how to survive on the island.

I found it strange, and suggestive of privilege on the part of the production team, that the theme of race and the “other” was largely de-emphasized, or even ignored in favor of a spritely, magical presentation of a New World full of possibility. I believe that in the modern context, there is an obligation when reproducing works which contain and perpetuate racism and justification of colonialism to contextualize them meaningfully and to make clear that we do not continue to support these values. In the multiple essays published in the 54-page program, there was some brief acknowledgment of the violence of colonialism, but always distanced from the present viewer and buried behind the authors’ theses on other subjects. The production itself was inexplicably racially problematic in ways that were not artistically or historically necessitated.

The entire cast was white or white-passing, including Caliban (the student body of Stanford is 43 percent white, according to the Diversity and Access Office). Prospero justifies Caliban’s enslavement by saying he treated him well until Caliban allegedly sought to “violate the honor” of his daughter. The rhetoric of enslavement of a subhuman “other” to protect a white woman’s purity certainly does not become de-racialized just because all of the actors can be perceived as white. Although perhaps a legitimate interpretation of the script, I was bothered that the production team actively legitimized this narrative by having Caliban grab his genitals and literally lunge at Miranda in this scene, right at the beginning of the play. If the intent was to de-literalize the enactment of the racist fantasy of predatory men of color by having this character be white-passing (to the extent that that could even be possible), it might have helped to have some visible people of color elsewhere in the show to connote this.

What I found most alarming, however, was a scene in the second part of the play with Stephano, a “drunken butler,” and Trinculo, the king’s jester. In this scene, the pair are distracted by some fancy clothes, and they literally start voguing. Voguing is of course an art form by and for Black and Latinx queer communities, but in this play it was presented not in that context, but rather as just a fun way for the comic characters of the European court to dance. This scene actively continues the colonial legacy by treating non-European, non-white cultures like a costume one can don to revel in the possibility of a life outside of European normative power structures, only to reify the supremacy and necessity of these power structures to restore “order” to the world. This was a clear appropriation of Black art to decorate this “de-racialized” version of “The Tempest.”

I can fully believe that the racism in this production was the result of ignorance on the part of the production team rather than malice, but the outcome is nevertheless extremely problematic as it works to support white supremacy. While it is now too late to fix this production, I’d like to call on the artistic direction and on TAPS as a whole to work to repair this harm, perhaps by having a public conversation with students about how to better include the voices of PoC in future productions.

– Kai Kent ’17

 

Contact Kai Kent at kkent17 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

  • Introspection

    Do you believe that your interpretation using a modern-day Stanford bubble context is what Shakespeare envisioned? Do you believe that your interpretation of everything deserves to be imposed on TAPS and everyone else everywhere all the time? How is that less oppressive than what you rail against?

  • Yikes

    Still digesting a lot of this article, but quick correction that the tempest takes place in the Mediterranean…

  • necessarycriticismwrongtarget

    I agree entirely with these criticisms and was deeply uncomfortable as an audience member, but “production team” is not the place to lay blame, especially in a production this large. There are very nuanced relationships and differences between TAPS undergrads and Amy Freed, a professional instructor, playwright, and director. The citation of the 43% white statistic is also miswielded, in that disproportional representation is not unique to this production. TAPS and in general, theater at Stanford, have diversity issues to address.

  • Courtney Cooperman

    Given that the actor who portrayed Caliban is a Jordanian student of Palestinian heritage (and incredibly passionate about human rights issues, calling attention to colonialism, and addressing the refugee crisis), I find this article to be well-intentioned but poorly researched, and comes off as absurd to those who have a better understanding of the cast members’ identities besides their appearance as “white-passing.” TAPS’ production of “The Tempest” is an ill-suited target for the undeniably real issue of PoC underrepresentation in the media in our culture as a whole.

  • Rollie

    “I believe that in the modern context, there is an obligation when reproducing works which contain and perpetuate racism and justification of colonialism to contextualize them meaningfully and to make clear that we do not continue to support these values.”

    No, friend…there are no obligations in art.

    As for your own, personal urge to contextualize Shakespeare by the sensibilities (sensitivities?) of a time in which he did not live, then have at it, and I hope it gives you some peace of mind. But please realize that not everyone sees racism in their cornflakes, so if you ride the hope of achieving a new artistic standard by deconstructing and RE-racializing works like The Tempest, then I’m afraid you’re in for a lot of disappointment. Outside of the rarefied atmosphere of your campus, I think you’ll find it much harder to sell the notion of Shakespeare as a “harm” that needs the “repair” of your modern perspective.

    And lastly, since you so fervently attack what you see as cultural appropriation, then don’t you consider it appropriative for a group of Stanford students to act out the work of an Englishman anyway? (Unless any of the actors are English themselves.)

  • john
  • UR_FREINDLY_NEIGHBORHOOD_TROLL

    You need Liberal Conversion Therapy, sweetie,

  • UR_FREINDLY_NEIGHBORHOOD_TROLL

    You sound like you could really use a brain transplant, sweetie,

  • UR_FREINDLY_NEIGHBORHOOD_TROLL

    “Outside of the rarefied atmosphere of your campus”

    Lol, she (?) is in “Computer Science” department – is it any wonder that America is in the dumps when this sort of people have to compete with the world’s best?

    https://profiles.stanford.edu/katrina-kent

    Katrina Rose Kent

    UNDERGRADUATE, COMPUTER SCIENCE
    UNDERGRADUATE, IBERIAN AND LATIN AMERICAN CULTURES

    PRINT PROFILE EMAIL PROFILE VIEW STANFORD-ONLY PROFILE
    CONTACT
    Work
    kkent17@stanford.edu
    University – Student
    Department: Computer Science
    Position: Undergraduate
    University – Student
    Department: Iberian and Latin American Cultures
    Position: Undergraduate
    ADDITIONAL INFO
    Mail Code: 3076

  • antne

    I was a student of Shakespeare and actually saw productions of the Bard at the Royal Shakespeare Company in London in the 70’s. I believe I can speak with some measure of authenticity to call this worldly college senior a total doorknob. George Orwell described you and your ilk to a t. Revise everything to suit your world view. Your cries from Mom’s basement are indeed “a tale told by an idiot”.
    Good luck in the real world after graduation.

  • ronwf

    Here’s an idea; let producers, directors and actors put on works from the greatest playwrights of history without changing them into works that were not what the author actually wrote and then let the audience decide for themselves what it means to them. I realize it is painful for you to think that you may NOT be smarter and morally superior to everyone else and that the rest of us might well be fit to figure things out on our own without having people like you erase history and impose your judgement on the rest of us. Tough.

  • ronwf

    Generally, people like her have no intention to live in the real world. They either a) stay in academic or b) get a job either in government or in an NGO supported by government grants.

    I’d like to see President Trump issue an Executive Order that states “No Executive Department will hire any person with a degree in ‘* Studies” or “* Cultures”.

  • Nunya Beeswax

    Where in the text of the play is the island on which the action takes place identified as Caribbean?

    Caliban is the son of Sycorax, an Algerian sorceress; that would seem to suggest one of the Balearic Islands, or (at a stretch) the Canaries as the location–at any rate, the island is more likely to be in the Mediterranean than anywhere else. To situate the action in the Caribbean seems like the worst kind of problematizing eisegesis.