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Home :: Archive :: 1993 :: September ::
Denzel Washington, Race, and Casting
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 4, No. 560.  Thursday, 16 Sept. 1993.
(1)     From:   Ellen Edgerton <EBEDGERT@SUADMIN>
        Date:   Thursday, 16 Sep 1993 09:43 ET
        Subj:   Denzel Washington in *Much Ado*
(2)     From:   Jon Enriquez <ENRIQUEZJ@GUVAX.BITNET>
        Date:   Thursday, 16 Sep 1993 09:58:48 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Race and Casting (a spinoff from Politics, etc.)
From:           Ellen Edgerton <EBEDGERT@SUADMIN>
Date:           Thursday, 16 Sep 1993 09:43 ET
Subject:        Denzel Washington in *Much Ado*
Gabriel Egan wonders if Kenneth Branagh was trying to make a point by not
making a point with the casting of a black actor as a prince in *Much
Ado About Nothing*.  I'm reasonably certain that it was not so much an
artistic consideration as a box-office one, and not so much a political/
cultural one as just this director's general curiosity about eclectic
casting.  In a Messina with characters with names like Hugh Oatcake and
Frances Seacole, I personally hardly find a black prince "out of place."
It's also interesting that in Shakespeare's day, Italy was considered
decadent and strange, the California of its time.  That a few viewers
would consider the presence of a black prince in this play to be
similarly decadent (or culturally incorrect) and strange seems, in a way,
poetically fitting.
There is one interesting quirk to the casting of Washington which I'm
sure Branagh might not have considered.  In his notes for the movie
Branagh goes on a bit about *Much Ado*'s passing similarities to
*R&J* and *Othello* -- *R&J* as expressed in the impulsive young lovers
Claudio and Hero, and *Othello* presaged in the "pre-Iago" figure of
Don John.  Despite the fact that Shakespeare developed these plays from
different sources, the similarities that *Much Ado* has to both the prior
and the later play are hard to ignore.  If Don John can be seen as a
pre-Iago figure, who's the pre-Othello?  (Claudio, the jealous dupe?
Don Pedro, the military commander whose patronage of another man helps
make the object of revenge?  Both?  Neither?)
My cousin, who teaches a 12th-grade English class, has started off her
semester with *Othello* and some of her students who saw *Much Ado*
over the summer thought Don John was similar to Iago, and thought it
was "neat" that there was a black actor playing the character that
Don John was mad at.  They of course don't know about the different
sources Shakespeare used, but to me it does seem to pose a valid
question:  Just what motivated Shakespeare to choose these particular
sources, anyway?
As I said before, I think this is just a coincidental quirk of casting
in *Much Ado*, but it's interesting to look at this film and see hints
of both what probably >was< in Shakespeare's career (*R&J*) at the time
that *Much Ado* was probably written (and if you listen carefully, you
can hear that the Claudio-Hero love theme sounds suspiciously like
"Tonight" from WEST SIDE STORY); and what was to come.  If Branagh
did in fact want to suggest this, he certainly succeeded -- at least
to some of my cousin's 12th-graders.
Ellen Edgerton

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From:           Jon Enriquez <ENRIQUEZJ@GUVAX.BITNET>
Date:           Thursday, 16 Sep 1993 09:58:48 -0400 (EDT)
Subject:        Race and Casting (a spinoff from Politics, etc.)
On the subject of race and casting, I submit that sometimes "non-realistic"
casting is intended to make a point and sometimes it isn't.  I've heard of a
Mississippi production of *R&J* where the Montagues are all black and the
Capulets all white; obviously, race matters here.  A few years ago the Folger
did *Othello* with a black man playing Iago.  That suggested two things: that
Iago was evil, not merely racist, and that blacks too often struggle with each
other rather than working together against their common oppressors.  Obviously,
race matters.
On the other hand, I don't think it matters in Branagh's *Ado*; it didn't
matter when I acted in *R2* with a white Gaunt and black Bolingbroke; it didn't
matter in a recent *R3* I saw where Buckingham was black.  The plays were
written for white male casts; in an era when white males make up a fraction of
the talent pool, you either have to decide to restrict yourself to that
fraction or find ways to broaden the cast.  In cases like these, race -- and
for that matter gender -- doesn't matter.
Jon Enriquez
The Graduate School
Georgetown University
ENRIQUEZJ@guvax     (Bitnet)

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