Othello can be white, Romeo can be a girl18/02/2014
“Several years ago in 2007 when I served as a judge for the Caine Prize (commonly known as the African Booker), the winner of the short story competition was the Ugandan writer Monica Arac de Nyeko, whose story Jambula Tree told of the tender love between two girls.
The love between the girls flies in the face of their society’s conventions but gives them strength, confidence and purpose. It was clear to the Caine Prize judges and to other readerts of the Jambula Tree that the writing of this story of forbidden love took some daring on the part of the young author. It was the same kind of daring that prompted Radclyffe Hall to pen The Well of Loneliness, and for Jackie Kay to produce The Adoption Papers.
The prevalence of homophobic laws and anti-gay feeling across several African countries has recently been in the news. On the BBC website a depressing map of discrimination appeared, and in January of this year another Caine Prize winner, the Kenyan memoirist Binyawanga Wainana, wrote ‘I Am a Homosexual, Mum,’ a ‘lost chapter’ to his memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place to coincide with his 43rd birthday, and subsequently received numerous letters of support from writers and artists across the globe.
The Caine Prize, one of many, many literary awards, is perhaps serving inadvertently as a means to push new thinking about what it means to be ‘African’ as well as new writing from the people of African origin and descent.
And what does this have to do with Shakespeare?
For Warwick University’s AHRC funded project on Multicultural Shakespeare, I recently devised a writing competition Othello can be white, Romeo can be a girl aimed at young writers (14-25, to be judged in two categories) to give them the opportunity to share their thoughts and experiences of the casting of Shakespeare’s plays. Working with 30 schools, local authorities, colleges and theatre companies, we are looking for original, engaged responses that show knowledge and creativity in exploring how the plays have been cast or could be cast for an imaginary stage, film or TV production. We are certainly not only thinking about ‘race’, skin colour or ethnicity; nor are we only interested in the two plays referred to in the title of the competition. Entries can focus on any Shakespeare play or film. Entrants can respond in a piece of creative writing, exploring their ideas more generally, or in an essay-based format.
Although the creative process is intrinsically an embattled one, often requiring the artist to fight multiple demons, writing competitions can help scribes to share the struggle and to give voice to ideas, feelings and personal insights that would otherwise remain hidden. Competing for a tangible reward and public acknowledgement can be a spur to making a daring statement, to writing the lost chapter or even paragraph of a play, a film or a book.
Alas, Othello can be white, Romeo can be a girl is running as a pilot competition (not open to the general public), but welcoming submissions from a wide cross-section of schools, colleges, writing groups and theatres with which the project has been in contact over the last year. This group includes drama schools such as RADA, Bristol Grammar School, Royal Holloway College, London, the Curve Theatre in Leicester and the Tricycle Theatre in north London, as well as schools and academies in Lancashire, Yorkshire and Slough.
From these different places we expect to capture a sense of young peoples’ views on the staging of Shakespeare’s plays today. If the youthful audience that packed out the Barbican Theatre for Tom Morris’s recent Bristol Old Vic production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is anything to go by, the appetite for non-traditional casting is alive and well; in addition to partnering with Handspring Puppet Company, whose puppets convey both mysticism and devilishness, there was a multi-racial cast of young men and women mostly appearing costumed as carpenters’ mates, Hermia played with full feistiness by Akiya Henry, and the cheeky Bottom bringing Miltos Yerolemou even more fans.
The riotous comedy that kept the Barbican audience in their seats until the play closed with the majestic swaying Oberon and Titania bidding us farewell, was a far cry from the quiet sensibility threaded through Monica Arac De Nyeko’s Jambula Tree love story. Both productions were bold and experimental, however.
Creative writing competitions can encourage boldness, daring and experimentation. They can also encourage us to be more considered and reflective. The winners in each category of the Othello can be white, Romeo can be a girl competition will receive £200 cash and tickets to Shakespeare’s Globe; there are prizes for the runners up too. We hope there will be many rewards from participation.
Apart from winning the Caine Prize for her story back in 2007, Monica Arac de Nyeko’s bravery is being further rewarded. Her short story has been made into a film, a South-African/Kenyan production, by the Kenyan film-maker Wanuri Kahui, better known for sci-fi. The screen version of Jambula Tree is already garnering praise and Monica is set to become more famous.”