Monday 26 March 2018

"Voodoo Macbeth". An All-Black Shakespeare Adaptation Directed by Orson Welles.

"It was a big political event. And there was a riot that night, the police were around because there was a big part of the black community that thought we were making fun of the blacks (...). The whole speech of Shakespeare was invented by the blacks (...) I brought none of the Shakespearean tradition to it."
Orson Welles

Orson Welles (1915-1985) was 20 years old when he made theatrical history directing the first black professional production of Shakespeare (McCloskey, 1985). The setting was moved from Scotland to the Caribbean and the witches were changed to Haitian witch doctors (via).
At a time, the U.S., including Hollywood, were segregated, an audience of 10.000 "flocked to Macbeth on its opening night on 14 April 1936" (via) to Harlem's Lafayette Theater where it debuted (via).
"The 150-strong cast were all black and the majority had little previous acting experience. The production was part of a government programme called the Federal Theatre Project which was aimed at boosting employment and opportunities during the depression. It gave black actors the opportunity to play ‘real’ acting roles rather than crude racial stereotypes.
However, Welles faced protests from within the black community who felt that he was making a mockery of his cast, whilst Shakespeare purists felt that it mocked threatre’s traditions. Ultimately both were proved wrong and Welles’ production was a resounding success with both black and white audiences."
"Once the play went up, self-appointed purists decried the all-black production as a mockery of Shakespeare and the institution of the theater itself. African-American actors were fine as entertainers, but were certainly not meant perform the classics. It “wasn’t Shakespeare at all,” wailed one critic, but rather “an experiment in Afro-American showmanship.”"

- McCloskey, S. (1985). Shakespeare, Orson Welles, And the "Voodoo" Macbeth. Shakespeare Quarterly, 36(4), 406-416.
- images via and via


  1. Thanks, Kenneth and Karen! This man was really WOW, extremely impressive. Time for another Orson Welles posting :-) ...