Reimagining Henry IV

Do I have a place in telling Shakespeare’s stories?

When you think of “Shakespeare plays”, what comes to mind? My experience with Shakespeare plays is very similar to Pilar O’Connell’s experience – I rarely saw Brown and/or Asian actors playing any of the characters. When I did see actors of color, they were usually the servants or clowns in the corner. I felt there was not a place for me to tell these stories. From my experience, Shakespeare’s characters were usually played by white actors, particularly those characters who are elite and of the upper class. 

During my undergraduate years (2005-2009) and graduate years (2010-2013),  I was actually cast in a few Shakespeare plays. Guess how my professors cast me? 

As the servant, the clown, the servant again, the old peddler. Minimal lines. Minimal stage time. Always in service to others. Always in the background. Always the one to make the audience laugh. Always in the lower class. 

What does that communicate to a Brown woman+* such as myself? That I am forever relegated to serving white people? That the only way I can succeed in life is if my proximity to whiteness is being the picture perfect example of the Model Minority Myth?

Thankfully I was part of a student theatre troupe who focused on setting Shakespeare plays on specific sites on campus. I got the chance to play Puck and Friar Lawrence. They proved to me that other choices are possible. 

When Seattle Shakespeare Company launched Drum and Colours, I began to feel the familiar stirrings of excitement and intrigue that I experienced in college. An opportunity to either be onstage or see myself onstage in a classic and/or Shakespeare work?! To have an all-BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) company, from the creative team to the actors, telling classic stories from their unique and valid perspectives?! In a city that is very, very white? FINALLY.

Drum and Colours is still very new, first launched in the winter of 2022 with presentations of Hamlet and As You Like It in repertory. Having SSC make Drum and Colours an established program in their season addresses the issue of the lack of representation I often observe in Seattle. Our arts and cultural community still has a ways to go in terms of representation. It’s actions like this that are truly a move forward towards diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

To have an all-BIPOC cast tell the story of Henry IV is so thrilling to me! Considered to be one of Shakespeare’s histories, we often encounter that in order to be “historically accurate”, these stories must be told by white bodies. But when a Black or Brown person plays a historical figure, it’s “wrong” and “isn’t classic”, whatever that means. Works like Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton and Netflix’s Bridgerton are beginning to open up the mainstream public’s perspective, but the reality is: Black, Indigenous, and People of Color have ALWAYS been here. We have existed in the landscape of humxnity* right alongside white people!

The same thing can be said for the LGBTQ+ community! As discussed in “Classical Theatre is Trans”, much of Shakespeare’s works is trans theatre. To have Hal’s story come from the perspective of a young trans prince elevates Shakespeare’s work with such richness, texture, and vulnerability that we wouldn’t get to experience if not for this representation.

At the beginning of this ongoing pandemic, many of us began the lifelong process of dismantling how racism and white supremacy shows up in our lives. Our world is made up of diverse voices, stories, and bodies. How we approach any work, including Shakespeare, must reflect the world we live in. Now that we as a collective are beginning to acknowledge the complex intersection of identities, which have existed and continue to exist together, our interpretations of Shakespeare have to make space for all of these truths and points of view. Drum and Colours is here to stay.

–Annelih Hamilton (she/her)
Community Engagement Associate
Annelih identifies as a Filipina/x-American woman+* recovering from the Model Minority Myth

*After reading Rachel Rickett’s book Do Better, I’ve personally shifted my spellings in regards to people with the following:
Humxns, humxnity
Woman+, women+, man+, men+
This is an effort to be more inclusive in my use of language. Language is perpetually evolving and this Autostraddle article by Abeni Jones explores more thoughts on this topic: “Sex With An X: The Perils Of Performative Spelling”