Rac(e)ing the Shakespearean Archive: Antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction New Orleans

TUSC recently partnered with Tulane School of Liberal Arts Professor of English Michael Kuczynski and Professor of Theater John “Ray” Proctor to explore the intersection of race and Shakespeare in the antebellum South. With a grant from the Folger Shakespeare Library, Kuczynski and Proctor hosted ten visiting scholars on Tulane’s uptown campus in a workshop that examined the intersection of race and Shakespearean research and performance in the Southern United States with a special emphasis on New Orleans. The period before, during, and after the Civil War witnessed a constant engagement with Shakespeare’s work in New Orleans which reflected the racial dynamics of the city. That, in turn, influenced twentieth-century reactions to the playwright and continues to impact interpretations of Shakespeare in twenty-first century.  

TUSC provided access to more than two dozen items from its holdings, including rare monographs, the records of the Shakespeare Society of New Orleans (1917-1919), and original Carnival float designs illustrating Shakespeare’s presence in Mardi Gras. 

To coincide with the workshop and to celebrate Black History Month, TUSC staff also collaborated with the Tulane University Libraries (TUL) Media Services team to present “To Bear Another Hue,” an exhibition on Shakespearean characters of the African Diaspora. Displayed on the sixth floor of the main library, most items in the exhibition pertained to one of three characters in Shakespeare’s plays: Othello (The Tragedy of Othello, Moor of Venice), Aaron (Titus Andronicus), and the Prince of Morocco (The Merchant of Venice). Featured alongside film and theatre stills from TUL’s digital resources, notable items from TUSC’s holdings included a program for an Othello-themed Debutante Cotillion (1977), hosted by the oldest African American Carnival association in the United States (The Original Illinois Club); scans of late-nineteenth-century theater programs for Shakespearean productions put on by the New Orleans Academy of Music; and an advertisement found in a 1971 issue of the feminist Tulane newspaper, Distaff, which calls exclusively for Black actors for a production of Othello at New Orleans’ Dashiki Project Theatre. 

The exhibition was intended to generate further discussion on the racialized and gendered representations of these characters in both historic and contemporary adaptations. The curatorial team hopes visitors and students were encouraged to consider their personal responsibility when casting a critical eye on these historically overlooked and misrepresented Black figures of Shakespeare’s oeuvre. 

Published: 4/7/2023

Image: Professor Michael Kuczynski discussing TUSC material with workshop participants.

Professor Michael Kuczynski discussing TUSC material with workshop participants.