Women and Shakespeare

S1:E1:Delia Jarrett-Macauley on 'Moses, Citizen & Me', 'Shakespeare, Race and Performance'

April 23, 2020 Dr Varsha Panjwani Season 1 Episode 1
Women and Shakespeare
S1:E1:Delia Jarrett-Macauley on 'Moses, Citizen & Me', 'Shakespeare, Race and Performance'
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Women and Shakespeare
S1:E1:Delia Jarrett-Macauley on 'Moses, Citizen & Me', 'Shakespeare, Race and Performance'
Apr 23, 2020 Season 1 Episode 1
Dr Varsha Panjwani

In this episode, we discuss Dr Delia Jarrett-Macauley's novel, Moses, Citizen & Me, which revolves around a production of Julius Caesar by child soldiers in Africa, and her edited collection Shakespeare, Race and Performance. Check out http://www.womenandshakespeare.com for a complete transcript.

Interviewer: Dr Varsha Panjwani 
Guest: Dr Delia Jarrett-Macauley
Producer: Ms Karen Jessica Stewart
Artwork: Mr Wenqi Wan 

Sponsored by NYU Global Faculty Fund Award

Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, we discuss Dr Delia Jarrett-Macauley's novel, Moses, Citizen & Me, which revolves around a production of Julius Caesar by child soldiers in Africa, and her edited collection Shakespeare, Race and Performance. Check out http://www.womenandshakespeare.com for a complete transcript.

Interviewer: Dr Varsha Panjwani 
Guest: Dr Delia Jarrett-Macauley
Producer: Ms Karen Jessica Stewart
Artwork: Mr Wenqi Wan 

Sponsored by NYU Global Faculty Fund Award

Varsha:

Welcome to 'Women & Shakespeare' podcast. Please join me your host, Dr Varsha Panjwani, in celebrating the Bard's birthday but don't even bother competing over a birthday gift for him because a podcast series in which diverse women scholars, writers, directors, actors discuss his work is going to be pretty hard to beat. I mean, what else could a 456 year old guy want?! Now that we've cleared that up, I'm happy to introduce our very first guest, Dr Delia Jarrett-Macauley. Dee's first novel 'Moses, Citizen & Me' w on the Orwell prize for political writing. In her tender and t ense book, child soldiers in Sierra Leone in Africa enact a production of Shakespeare's 'Julius Caesar'. Dee also edited the much needed essay collection, 'Shakespeare, Race and Performance'. Personally, I s ee Dee as a towering intellectual - I know she's going to roll her eyes when she hears this - but it is so true. Sh e h a s b een a big sister to me and I have enjoyed sisterhood with her in every sense of the word. So it is a special pleasure for me to share this episode with you. It was recorded in my classroom. Remember that golden age when we had face to face teaching and we weren't in lockdown like this? Well this is when the episode was recorded. I hope you enjoy. So you're really, really welcome Dee .

Dee:

Thanks very much. It's lovely to be here.

Varsha:

I just want to begin by asking you, when did you first encounter Shakespeare and what was the nature of that encounter?

Dee:

Well, I think like most people, I encountered Shakespeare in the classroom reading texts at school, you know, going around the room being allocated a part. But I was also very lucky that when I was in the fifth form at school, we went to Stratford-Upon-Avon to see the Royal Shakespeare company do 'Twelfth Night'. And that was absolutely stunning. I remember buying a poster for my bedroom wall with words from the fool on it. So, you know, 'What is love? 'Tis not hereafter,/Present mirth hath present laughter./ What's to come is still unsure./In delay there there lies no plenty, /Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty./ Youth's a stuff will not endure.' And I remember also starting a relationship with a boyfriend on the coach trip back that was significant. And I of course at that stage I'd never knew that it was going to be spending some of my adult working life, you know, working on Shakespeare. But I loved the words. I loved the stage.

Varsha:

Seems like you connected straight away.

Dee:

Yes I think it's, you know, the combination of the spectacle, you know, the excitement of actually visiting a theater and , and so on. It was lovely.

Varsha:

I agree. Because what we often think of with Shakespeare is words on the page, but that's just part of the story, isn't it?

Dee:

Yes, Absolutely.

Varsha:

And uh , you brought it back into your novel, 'Moses, Citizen & Me' , uh , your first novel and broadly speaking, it is about child soldiers in Sierra Leone, which is a very challenging subject, especially for a first novel, because these are children, but they have also killed. So what drew you to this subject?

Dee:

You're right, it was an incredibly tough subject. And I suppose inevitably looking back thinking, 'Oh, I picked a difficult one there', but I'll tell you how it happened. My family originates from Sierra Leone in West Africa, Sierra Leone was a British colony. There was a very long civil war in Sierra Leone, 10-year civil war, which was notorious really for the use and abuse of children on both sides. Um, inevitably, of course there were a number of news broadcasts about it and a lot of newspaper coverage. But I do remember specifically the day on which there was a BBC lunchtime broadcast in which they talked about a little boy. And I think now that his name probably was Citizen , um, and that this child had been sent by the rebel forces to execute his grandparents. Now that was a strategy that the commanders used to ensure that the children would not be able to return home. Because obviously if you've killed your family, then where else would you go but to follow , um, the new leaders? Um , and I decided there and then that I was going to write about this little boy and that in my story, he would be guilty if you like, of having killed one grandparent. So in the narrative, it is the grandmother who has been killed. And that means that there is a surviving and grieving grandfather: the Moses of the title. And, the 'me' of the title is the narrator who travels from England back to Sierra Leone to investigate what's happened and help the family in crisis. So that's very much where I started. Um , I remember, you know, going off to , um, an art shop and buying, you know, the notebooks that I was going to work with and I had my three characters. Um , and at that time I had absolutely no idea that there was going to be Shakespeare in it. Um, but the Shakespeare came along.

Varsha:

So let's talk about the Shakespeare that did come along in the novel and for the benefit of those who have not read the book, although read the book, but for the benefit of those who haven't read the book, there are multiple waking dreams or journeys in which the protagonist narrator Julia meets Bemba G, who is a sort of spiritual guide, if you like, who has gathered all child soldiers in a compound deep in the rain forest . And about halfway through this novel, Bemba G announces that he's going to direct a production of 'Julius Caesar 'with these child soldiers. And he brings out his copy of the play in your novel, in a Krio translation by Thomas Decker. Are there many Krio translations of Shakespeare? I mean, how popular is Shakespeare in Sierra Leone ?

Dee:

Well, very good question. There are two that I know of, certainly. So Decker was a civil servant who in the 60s when Sierra Leone gained independence, was working in the country's civil service and was very critical of the leaders. As we know, and this happens time and time again in different contexts, you have to find a clever way around criticizing your leaders. And one way in which he chose to do that was by translating 'Julius Caesar' into Krio, which was a lingua franca and putting on a production which then enabled people to say, 'Ooh, that looks terribly familiar. D'you know, that person seems to be such and such in the cabinet'. So that's how it fitted in the time. Professor Eldred Jones, who is a Shakespeare scholar , Africa's first leading Shakespeare scholar who did his DPhil at Oxford , um , in the 1950s , and , professor Eldred Jones said to me, actually, yes, of course Shakespeare is very popular in the country. In fact, the name Julius is popular and 'Julius Caesar' in particular is popular. And as I'm sure all the people, y'know, here, know Shakespeare 'course, i s the big global figure. So he is re ad and studied everywhere. It doesn't matter if you're going to school in China or India or, you know, Sierra Leone, you will be doing Shakespeare. So there is that benefit that if you quote Shakespeare, if you include Shakespeare in a t e xt, people don't run scared and say who on earth you're talking about. They understand, they get it. They don't necessarily expect to find it in a novel about contemporary Africa, but over time they get used to the fact 'cause I've said it over and over again, that this is actually part of the cultural life and th at e d ucated people expect to know certainly the major Shakespeare plays and would have stu died th em at school.

Varsha:

And let's talk about the way in which you've made Shakespeare your own in the novel. And what I love is the way in which the novel handles Shakespeare. I'm going to read out a very specific moment in which Bemba G shows Julia his copy of the play. So Julia's narrating, and she says, 'the book was not passed to me with the solemnity of the Bible. It was not shoved at me with the casualness of a circular. It was thrown into the air, veering towards Black Rock only after it had looped with splendid equipoise over my head'. So this is not a very reverential attitude to Shakespeare, but neither is it totally irreverential or disrespectful, or even postcolonial, dare I say it, in a very aggressive, taking back the empire kind of way. Is this typical of Shakespeare productions in Sierra Leone like this playfulness, if you like...

Dee:

Oh, I don't think that I'm very well qualified to say anything much about Shakespeare productions in Sierra Leone. But when I was writing, I, I really didn't feel , uh , reverential towards the text. So I think the Bible is mentioned because again, as I'm sure you're aware, many, many missionaries went to West Africa and the former colonies, the Bible has been handed over, if you like, to the continent. U m, I think it was Archbishop Desmond Tutu who said, you know, they, they came and you know, when they left we had the Bible and they had the land. So there's that sense of what has this exchange really meant. So it's not in the same category as the Bible. It's not entirely casual, like a circular would be, something that we'd kind of throw in the bin. A nd, and this particular text has been hiding in a tree. So it is a magical tree, u m, that has stored this text over time. A nd the date is rather fluid, shall we say. So, yes, I think I did feel quite light and playful about it. I was fortunate as well, c ause I 'd seen a wonderful production of a children's 'Midsummer Night's Dream', u m, which is a film. And I spoke to the, u h, producer director of that. U m, and through our exchanges I began to again get a sense of how Shakespeare can be adapted for young audiences. So that was really, really nice, y ou k now,

Varsha:

...and there was something like that at the book launch wasn't there.

Dee:

Well it was lovely actually. It was a friend of mine who is a theater director Shalla Oye Lee who directs plays and has also done quite a lot of work with the Royal Opera House. She's really talented. And she took the novel and um, (I mean again, now I look back, I think 'gosh we did all these crazy things') and she made a script out of some of it so that could be performed at the book launch. Um, I had a lovely launch at , um, the Royal Overseas league in St James's. And so the production was put on, other friends made wonderful African dishes. Uh, there were drummers and music, it's just to get a book on its way, you know. Um, but yes, it was, it was good. It was good.

Varsha:

But I would definitely like to see the full production because you get some very vivid scenes in the novel about this p roduction happening with child soldiers. So...

Dee:

...but it's strange, you know, I read and reread the play oh hundreds of times. I mean in , um, in English and in the Krio translation before Shakespeare actually came to mind as a part of this novel, I knew that the child soldiers were feeling very, very angry and I knew that Bemba G, as the leader or guru shaman if you like, was, was feeling a bit stuck and he got them to do , um , childlike things to play games, to run around, to scream , um, to learn numbers. By the way, obviously child soldiers, are not at school and not heading to university and um, and they're losing all those years of education and development. So he was helping them catch up, but it still wasn't enough. So Shakespeare became this big engine to push things forward and, and also to create a sort of bridge between where they were and their futures.

Varsha:

So to work through what they'd been through, in a way?

Dee:

Yes!

Varsha:

I actually want to now switch to talking about your other very significant work, 'Shakespeare, Race and Performance'. How was this project conceived?

Dee:

At the time that I conceived the project, I was working as a research fellow at the University of Warwick in the Midlands. And they had their project that was broadly looking at Black British , um , British Asian Shakespeare in the UK . And really from the get go, it was evident that we were lacking in texts that brought the field together. It's not that stuff hadn't been done, not a bit, there'd been obviously a number of productions over many years. Um , so people such as Jatinder Verma, who's the artistic director of Tara Arts, and a number of other people had been putting on Shakespeare from the late seventies and eighties. And in some cases also writing about those productions and their thinking. But of course, students I think prefer to have books, where the stuff is clubbed together and the sector as a whole needed something that would not only , um , celebrate , uh, what was happening at the time - so the 2010s onwards - but also help us to think back a bit. So I think it was you who talked to me actually first very helpfully, Varsha, about the genealogies, about thinking about these different generations of work. And I found that, you know, very helpful and very useful as a way of structuring the book.

Varsha:

I actually found it very useful in that regard. I mean, especially the genealogical approach to show that there has been decades of work here. Um, so this is not something new that we're suddenly having conversations about race or about diaspora Shakespeare. But your introduction very much established: no, there are many phases of this work and, um , there have been lines of development, changes through the decades.

Dee:

Absolutely. Absolutely. You know, even when Paul Robeson was performing Shakespeare in Britain , um , he was able to hark back to the work that had been done by Ira Aldridge, the African American actor in the 19th century and Ira's daughter Amanda had given Paul Robeson the earrings which her father had worn when he was performing Othello, given these same earrings to Paul Robeson, very nice sort of little gesture to encourage him, you know, in his own , um, his own work. But we have this difficulty of always feeling as though, you know, we're just starting. It's never been done before, you know, so it is important to write the history and it's important that when people hit the big time, as it were, they know to say, 'yeah, I actually wasn't the first', you know,

Varsha:

So this phenomenon of always, we're always being discovered as it were. Um, and I think establishing histories give us a sense of, no, we have been working really, really hard...

Dee:

Yes I think part of the difficulty that we have with this discovery business is because of what is hidden, you see. And I find that with literature, but our art and you know , other cultural forms too. Because the lives and cultures of people who are in the former colonies are to a great extent still hidden, when they get on a boat or get on a plane and come here, it looks as though that is the beginning of the story, right? So if you take somebody like Yvonne Brewster who was directing Shakespeare in the 70s I think she did her first production, she's able to then say, 'but actually my father was reading this stuff to me, and in school, we had these lessons, and in fact there was a big debate about what kind of theater we should be doing in Jamaica, whether we should follow these particular lines that some would deem colonial, or whether we should be generating more of our own homegrown national theater'. What tends to happen is we have little bits of history imported. You know, people have heard of Gandhi but no one else or heard of Robeson possibly no one else, or they've heard of Nelson Mandela. But when you begin to look at the complexities of those histories and create a global history then these things become much less remarkable, I think.

Varsha:

Absolutely. And I think that is why just having these long lineages, looking back at what's changed and questions yet to come become really important. And one of the strands that was particularly something that I was very glad to see in this essay collection was that it emphasized the role of women of color in this field, even if it made their exclusion visible from it as well. But fortunately things have changed in that the 'Richard II' performance at Shakespeare's Globe, which was performed by all women of color and in fact the director, crew, everyone was women of color and you were involved with it as well.

Dee:

And you too..

Varsha:

...in a very little capacity. So how long has it taken us to get here?

Dee:

It's taken a very long time. It's a, it's a journey. I wouldn't say that I think they should be now loads of all women of color, Shakespeare productions as if to say, you know, that is what we do. It's, it's interesting. It's certainly viable. It was successful, sold out. It brought, I think, interestingly a different audience as well to Shakespeare's Globe, you know. At a simple level, I think people like to see at least sometimes people who look like them . Yeah. And so there is that basic, basic thing. Um, but I think that , uh , the big houses are becoming more inclusive. I think there's more recognition of the value of diversity and the need to engage people and have all those different skills being used. So that is good. That's something to be...optimistic about...

Varsha:

Yeah. Do you feel optimistic about it though? Do you think that this is going to be a sustained trend now ? We are going to observe changes in the mainstream or do you think it is still at the level of tickbox...

Dee:

I think it's going to be bumpy because change generally is. I think certainly one area where I think there is a lot of room for growth and change would be within the teaching of Shakespeare. It's not just a question of, you know, who you see when you go to the national theater or up to Stratford. But if we don't teach Shakespeare in a way that encourages people to think about it, working in different contexts and being adopted and performed, adapted, translated , um , by different sorts of people and just stick to the, you know, the old safe confines, that would be very, very sad.

Varsha:

Yeah. So I think what you're suggesting is that in every aspect, we need to be aware of very, very diverse Shakespeare, not only in the theater, but in the classrooms as well, where probably our first encounters of Shakespeare are. So it was really, really great talking to you, Dee.

Dee:

It was fun, thank you.

Varsha:

That was Delia Jarrett-Macauley talking about Shakespeare in South Africa and in Britain , and about what diversity truly means when adapting, performing and teaching Shakespeare. For our next episode, you will have to wait a month, but it will be worth it because we will welcome Cleopatra herself. Well, the first black Cleopatra, on professional British stage. She is...

Doña:

Hello, this is Doña Croll, and thank you for listening to 'Women & Shakespeare'.

Varsha:

So dear listeners, adieu, adieu, adieu. Remember to tune in to Women & Shakespeare next month. In the meantime, keep shattering those glass ceilings .