Thursday, October 22, 2020

An interactive discussion of KEENE and its themes with playwright Anchuli Felicia King, director Ethan McSweeny,  scholar David Sterling Brown, and dramaturg Anne G. Morgan.


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DAVID STERLING BROWN is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at SUNY Binghamton; his research and teaching interests include Shakespeare, early modern English literature, African-American literature, drama, race, gender, sexuality, mental health, and the family. In addition to being a member of Phi Beta Kappa and a 2016-2018 Duke University SITPA Scholar, he is a graduate of New York University’s English and American Literature program and he was the first Trinity College (CT) alumnus to hold the Ann Plato Fellowship. At Trinity, David served as a faculty member in the English Department where he designed and taught an interdisciplinary early modern English drama/African-American literature course titled “(Early) Modern Literature: Crossing the Color-Line,” which is also the name of his 2016 Radical Teacher article that explores how instructors can use their scholarly interests to transcend identity politics and construct a methodology and pedagogy that intricately connects the academic to the personal and experiential. David was also a 2013-2014 Consortium for Faculty Diversity Scholar; and in 2016 he received two U of A Summer Faculty Stipends for curricular innovation. For the 2016-2017 academic year, David received U of A and NEH-sponsored Folger Shakespeare Library grants that supported his collaborative efforts to teach Shakespeare to undergraduates and host a statewide “Diversifying Shakespeare” conference.

ANCHULI FELICIA KING is a playwright, screenwriter and multidisciplinary artist of Thai-Australian descent. As a writer, Felicia is interested in linguistic hybrids, digital cultures and issues of globalization. Her plays have been produced by the Royal Court Theatre (London), Studio Theatre (Washington D.C.), American Shakespeare Center (Staunton), Melbourne Theatre Company (Melbourne), Sydney Theatre Company, National Theatre of Parramatta and Belvoir Theatre (Sydney). As a multidisciplinary artist, Felicia has worked with a wide range of companies, including Punchdrunk, PlayCo, 3LD Arts & Technology Center, Roundabout Theater, Manhattan Theatre Club, 59E59, Ars Nova, the Obie Awards, The Builders Association, Ensemble Studio Theater, NYTW, American Shakespeare Company and Red Bull Theater. She is a member of Ensemble Studio Theater's Youngblood Group and Roundabout Theater's Space Jam Program. Formerly based in New York, Felicia continues to work internationally and is based between London, New York and her hometown of Melbourne, Australia.

ETHAN MCSWEENY was named Artistic Director of American Shakespeare Center in June 2018 and made his Blackfriars directing debut with Julius Caesar followed by the world premiere of Julianne Wick Davis’ musical The Willard Suitcases. His internationally acclaimed work over the past two decades has been distinguished by both its remarkable diversity and breadth of achievement. In New York, his direction includes the Broadway revival of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man (Tony Award nomination, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards) and the premiere of John Grisham’s A Time to Kill; the off-Broadway premieres of John Logan’s Never the Sinner (Outer Critics and Drama Desk awards) and Ellen McLaughlin’s adaptation of Aeschylus’ The Persians, as well as world premieres by Kate Fodor, Jason Grote, and Thomas Bradshaw, among others. Nationally, his work on new plays, musicals, and revivals has been seen at most of the major institutional theatres in the country including the Guthrie, the Goodman, the Old Globe, the Denver Center, the Alley, Dallas Theater Center, South Coast Rep, Center Stage, the Wilma, the Pittsburgh Public, Westport Playhouse, the Arena Stage, and the Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington, DC, where his string of acclaimed classics includes: The Tempest, Much Ado about Nothing, The Merchant of Venice, Ion, and Major Barbara. Internationally, he has spent two seasons at the celebrated Stratford Festival in Canada, staged multiple productions for The Gate in Dublin, and recently toured his production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the Macao Arts Festival in China. His productions have been nominated for more than 75 awards and claimed 30 wins, including four for Best Director: Twelfth Night (Helen Hayes Award, 2017), A Streetcar Named Desire (Irish Times Award, 2013), A Body of Water (San Diego Critics Circle, 2006) and Six Degrees of Separation (Star-Tribune Award, 2003). Ethan served as the Artistic Director of the Chautauqua Theatre Company from 2004- 2011; as a Trustee of SDC, the national labor union representing directors and choreographers, from 2005-2017; and as Treasurer on the inaugural board of the SDC Foundation since 2018. He received the first-ever undergraduate degree in Theatre and Dramatic Arts from Columbia University.

ANNE G. MORGAN received the 2019 Elliott Hayes Award for her leadership of Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries, ASC’s groundbreaking initiative to discover, develop, and produce new work in conversation with Shakespeare’s plays. Dramaturgy for current and upcoming world premieres at ASC includes The Defamation of Cicely Lee by Emma Whipday, Keene by Anchuli Felicia King, and Thrive by L M Feldman. She previously dramaturged ASC’s world premieres of 16 Winters by Mary Elizabeth Hamilton, Anne Page Hates Fun by Amy E. Witting, and Emma by Emma Whipday and regularly provides dramaturgical support for other ASC productions. Prior to joining ASC, Anne was the Literary Manager & Dramaturg at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center where she worked on new plays by David Auburn, Bekah Brunstetter, A. Rey Pamatmat, and more. Other dramaturgy work includes the Great Plains Theatre Conference, New York Theatre Workshop, the Kennedy Center/NNPN MFA Playwrights’ Workshop, Company One Theatre, and more. Anne has worked internationally at the Baltic Playwrights Conference, the Latvian Academy of Culture, and the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre. She has taught at the University of Connecticut and the National Theater Institute. She serves on the Executive Board of the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas.


In this “post-postracial” world that too often conveniently equates blackness with race—and, in so doing, perpetuates the false notion that white people are raceless beings—it is not always the case that whiteness is rendered visible and thus presented through theater as a racialized category that necessitates critical examination. Yet, with Keene, Anchuli Felicia King accomplishes this difficult task by creating a deeply engaging play that is color-conscious, as opposed to “post-racially” colorblind, especially with respect to whiteness.


Keene follows Tyler, a Black ivy-league graduate student, through a three-day Shakespeare conference that is overwhelmingly white; and the play also follows Tyler into his historically informed dreams, where aspects of nineteenth-century Black actor Ira Aldridge’s life appear in vivid detail, ultimately revealing life parallels of isolation and betrayal between Tyler and Aldridge, parallels that also resonate with the trajectory of Shakespeare’s tragic Black protagonist Othello. When Tyler dreams, so, too, does Kai, a Japanese musicologist who instantly falls in love with Tyler and his blackness and who is the only other non-white person at this Shakespeare conference. It is in this sea of whiteness that Tyler and Kai stand out, paradoxically becoming visible and invisible in distinct dramatic moments emphasizing the kind of uncomfortable hypervisibility that is a byproduct of the psychologically and emotionally harmful racism, exoticism, exceptionalism and tokenism one can experience in predominantly white spaces.


With its emphasis on anxious early career researchers, in addition to its glimpse into the past through Aldridge and the significant challenges he faced because of anti-Black racism, colonialism and prejudice, Keene offers a powerfully serious critique of several relevant and fundamentally important issues that deserve centering in the arts and public discourse. These issues include but are not limited to the: objectification of Black men; instability of whiteness as a racial construct; marginalization of international scholars; limits and failures of allyship; white scholars’, or white people’s, presumed ownership of Shakespeare vis-à-vis bardolatry; elitism and toxicity of academia; gatekeeping in academic publishing; competitiveness of graduate program cohorts; commodification of blackness; peer pressure and anxiety permeating academic conference environments; and the consequences of racialized self-doubt and the resulting self-sabotage.


Through this satirical and timely play that occasionally alludes to American pop music, King invites her audience to consider identity and belonging as she highlights some of the negative and even damaging aspects of a profession—academia—that undoubtedly extend beyond Shakespeare studies and the theater world, beyond Tyler’s and Kai’s dreams, and into the real worlds of those who experience Keene.

– David Sterling Brown, PhD | Assistant Professor of English | Binghamton University


I wrote Keene as a submission to American Shakespeare Center’s New Contemporaries prize. The prize invites playwrights to write a response play to one of Shakespeare’s works, with his original staging conditions in mind. I felt compelled to respond to Othello because I had such complicated feelings about the play; I found the text and its performance history to be both profoundly rich and deeply fraught. My entry point to Othello’s problematic legacy was to begin researching the life of Ira Aldridge, one of the first black actors to play Othello. The more I read about Aldridge’s career, the more parallels I began to identify between his struggles and modern Shakespearean scholarship, as contemporary academics of color attempted to reclaim a discourse that had historically vilified and excluded them. 


Keene exists on a thematic continuum with many of my other plays; I’m constantly trying to grapple with the inherited traumas of colonialism in an increasingly globalized world. What makes this play markedly different from my other writing, however, is that Keene is a love story! The play’s romance is, in many ways, my love letter to Shakespeare as a dramatist. While I find so much about Bardolatry exasperating (pour one out for Ben Johnson), I think Shakespeare’s enduring genius lies in the way he dramatizes love. In Keene, my star-crossed lovers are Tyler and Kai, the only two scholars of color at a Shakespeare conference. Throughout the play, we move between the events of the conference and a dreamlike nineteenth century, when Tyler dreams he is the subject of his doctoral dissertation: Ira Aldridge.


Rest assured, if you don’t know Othello, you will face no impediments in understanding this play! Keene is a thematic riff, not an adaptation; it operates in its own dramatic universe. But if you do know Othello, you’ll be able to spot the play’s many parallels and references to its Shakespearean source. In fact, Othello is just one of many intertextual threads I have lovingly woven into Keene. The play’s citations (from Mary Shelley to Ariana Grande) make no distinction between high and low art; this play is as much a pop fantasia as it is a gentle satire of Shakespearean academia. 


In this play, Tyler’s dreams allow him to oscillate between two separate yet interlocked timelines. I’ve been fondly dreaming of the alternate timeline where we would just be starting rehearsals for this play at ASC. While I can’t locate a great deal of joy in this pandemic-induced pause, I can at least locate a sliver of hope: the hope that we can seize this moment to acknowledgement and dismantle the many racist practices and institutions we continue to uphold. The struggles experienced by Ira Aldridge remain all too present in today’s world. Keene is my plea for us to acknowledge genius in all its colors, and to uplift the hitherto silenced voices and erased histories in our theatrical canon.

This event is part of a multi-part initiative of Red Bull Theater to provide an engaging and educational experience for all who are interested in Shakespeare’s Othello and the world in which we live. GET DETAILS


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