(L to R) Swingin’ the Dream, 1939; Moms Mabley; From Macbeth, 1936 (Courtesy New York Public Library); Rose McClendon, 1936 (Courtesy Library of Congress American Memory Collection); Outside the Lafayette Theater on the opening night of Macbeth, 1936 (Courtesy Library of Congress American Memory Collection).
(Dr. Freda Giles is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev for Shakespeare Unlimited and Folger Shakespeare Library.)
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Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 161
When you think about the Harlem Renaissance, theater might not be the first thing that comes to mind. But, says Dr. Freda Scott Giles, theater played a significant role in the blossoming of Black American arts and culture of the 1920s and ’30s. Of course, because there’s little in the English-language theater untouched by Shakespeare, he was present in the Harlem Renaissance too. Banner Shakespeare productions included Orson Welles’s hit “Voodoo” Macbeth, produced by the Federal Theater Project, and the Midsummer-inspired Swingin’ the Dream, which was a Broadway flop despite the talents of musician Louis Armstrong and comedian Moms Mabley.
We talk to Dr. Giles, Associate Professor Emerita of Theatre and Film Studies and African American Studies at the University of Georgia, about how the artists and thinkers of the Harlem Renaissance regarded the Bard. Plus, we visit the African Company of the 1820s and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s to learn about more than a century of Black responses to Shakespeare. Dr. Giles is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
Dr. Freda Scott Giles is Associate Professor Emerita of Theater at the University of Georgia. She was a contributor to three books: Tarell Alvin McCraney: Theater, Performance, and Collaboration, published in 2020; Constructions of Race in Southern Theatre: From Federalism to the Federal Theatre Project, published in 2003; and American Mixed Race: The Culture of Microdiversity, which was published in 1995.
From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published February 16, 2021. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “I Here Engage My Words,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Paul Luke at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.
MICHAEL WITMORE: Shakespeare’s work was written during a time that a lot of people call “The Renaissance.” There was another Renaissance—one that was closer to our time. And Shakespeare was a part of that one, too.
From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. The time I’m referring to is “The Harlem Renaissance.” Ten or so years of artistic and intellectual abundance fueled by the Great Migration, by Caribbean immigration, and by dreams to reconstruct the world of Reconstruction by Black soldiers coming home from World War I.
Dr. Freda Scott Giles is an Associate Professor Emerita of Theatre and Film Studies and African American Studies at the University of Georgia and for decades, she’s studied the theater world of the Harlem Renaissance. Because there’s almost nothing in the English-language theater that isn’t touched by Shakespeare, you won’t be surprised to find him here too, and not just in the places you’d expect. We found Dr. Giles’ perspective on this intersection so fresh, that we had to bring it to you.
She joined us for this podcast, which we call, “I Here Engage My Words.” Dr. Freda Scott Giles is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: Freda, just to start us off, I have a really basic question. How big a role did theater play in the Harlem Renaissance? Because when I think back to my history books, they seem to play a—you know, writers of all kinds and poets and painters, but what about theater and playwrights?
FREDA SCOTT GILES: Yes, that’s the problem that when the theater component of this era is remembered, the theater is reduced in significance. But the people who were living in that time thought that theater was very significant.
W.E.B. Du Bois thought that theater would be a major element in changing people’s minds about who African Americans are, what the problems are. He himself started a theater company, and he wanted to build up a national black theater that would have a circuit of theaters through the United States where plays by, for, and about African Americans would be performed. They even had a running segment in The Crisis called, “The Negro in Art: How Will He Be Portrayed.” And all of the intellectual voices of the period, white and Black, chimed in on what theater should be and what the theater should do.
BOGAEV: Wow, so it was seminal. Did Du Bois write plays himself?
GILES: Yes, he did. Du Bois wrote plays. He never published them, but I read them in his papers.
BOGAEV: Huh. Well, what were his plays like?
GILES: Well, he really appreciated expressionism. Several of the plays are very expressionistic and would be hard to produce, because you would have… one play he had civilization crashing down, and I said, “Hmm, I wonder what that looks like.”