Women and Shakespeare

S1:E2:Dona Croll on Cleopatra, John of Gaunt, Black Actors in Britain

May 23, 2020 Dr Varsha Panjwani Season 1 Episode 2
Women and Shakespeare
S1:E2:Dona Croll on Cleopatra, John of Gaunt, Black Actors in Britain
Chapters
Women and Shakespeare
S1:E2:Dona Croll on Cleopatra, John of Gaunt, Black Actors in Britain
May 23, 2020 Season 1 Episode 2
Dr Varsha Panjwani

In this episode, we discuss Dona Croll's portrayal of Cleopatra (she was the first black Cleopatra on the professional British stage) and John of Gaunt in Richard II at Shakespeare’s Globe. We also talk about the experience of black actors in the British theatre industry. Check out http://www.womenandshakespeare.com for a complete transcript.

Interviewer: Dr Varsha Panjwani 
Guest: Ms Dona Croll
Producer: Ms Lauren Yingqi Cheung
Artwork: Mr Wenqi Wan 

Sponsored by NYU Global Faculty Fund Award

Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, we discuss Dona Croll's portrayal of Cleopatra (she was the first black Cleopatra on the professional British stage) and John of Gaunt in Richard II at Shakespeare’s Globe. We also talk about the experience of black actors in the British theatre industry. Check out http://www.womenandshakespeare.com for a complete transcript.

Interviewer: Dr Varsha Panjwani 
Guest: Ms Dona Croll
Producer: Ms Lauren Yingqi Cheung
Artwork: Mr Wenqi Wan 

Sponsored by NYU Global Faculty Fund Award

Varsha:

Welcome to 'Women & Shakespeare'. I'm your host, Dr Varsha Panjwani, and today I'm thinking about the prominent theater reviewer and commentator Lyn Gardner's provocative question, 'who owns Shakespeare?' and her equally profound answer, which is 'nobody' and 'all of us'. Gardner wrote this piece as a rebuttal to self appointed Shakespeare police types who were claiming yet again that Shakespeare belongs to some more than it does to others. Women of color have often been at the receiving end of explicit and implicit policing, which is aimed at excluding them from the Shakespeare conversation and practice. This is why I am thrilled to introduce this episode's guest, Donna Croll. She was the first black Cleopatra on the professional British stage and therefore has been at the forefront of asserting women of color's ownership of Shakespeare in Britain. You might have seen her in numerous roles including Nerissa , Emilia, Mistress Overdone , Mistress Quickly, of course, Cleopatra and very recently as the John of Gaunt. If you thought she is magnetic onstage, I can confirm that she's utterly charismatic in person. After she had left, we all confessed that we were smitten with her. So I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as we enjoyed recording it. Dona, it's so nice to have you here. You're so welcome to 'Women & Shakespeare' podcast .

Dona:

Thank you very much. It's great to be here.

Varsha:

I'm going to begin, as I always begin; I ask everyone this: when was your first encounter with Shakespeare and what was the nature of that encounter?

Dona:

My first encounter with Shakespeare was my mother reciting and singing, I think it's A riel's song: 'where the bee sucks, there suck I/In a cowslip's bell I lie' , because my mother went to very posh school and so, she knew Shakespeare, but I didn't know it was Shakespeare and I used to go singing it around the garden at home. But the first time I was on stage with Shakespeare w as when I was 16 at an all girls school and I played Bottom and all my teachers said, you should be an actress. T he h ead m istress actually said, which I thought was hilarious at the time, 'Yours is the best Bottom I've ever seen'. When you're 16, that's funny. But, u m, they e ncouraged me to do it and so I did. And so I started acting in 1976 b ut I didn't actually do any professional S hakespeare t ill 1986.

Varsha:

...and your first role was Nerissa

Dona:

Nerrisa in the 'Merchant of Venice'.

Varsha:

So how did you feel with your first professional Shakespeare production?

Dona:

I've always wanted to do Shakespeare and I had said to my agent, I'd like to do this, I'd like to do that. I always wanted to play to Titania. I've always enjoyed the language. And so I wanted to do it. And then I got it in 86 and I realized I was working with people who'd just left drama school and they were doing Shakespeare. Why haven't I been allowed to do it? Things were very different in the eighties...in the seventies and eighties...to they now and...

Varsha:

That's almost ten years into your career. Isn't it?

Dona:

Yes, and I'm working with all these, what I thought were very posh actors and I thought they were all much better than me. And then I realized working with them, that they weren't, they were just whiter than me. And that production changed my life. When I finished it, I said to my agent, I'm not doing anymore repertory theater, which is what I'd been doing. I wanted to work in the West End, if I'm doing theater and I want to do film and I want to do television, what a cheek! But...I turned down, I think I turned down four jobs and I was out of work for about three months and then I got a job in the West End. So it's worth saying, I d on't want to do this kind of work anymore. L ike 10 years I think is a good apprenticeship. So I've done that. So now I w ant t o do, u h, next, next step up. And that's what I did.

Varsha:

But you did play Cleopatra on the professional stage. And in fact, in 1991 you played Cleopatra for the Talawa theater company's production. And the media at that time was widely publicizing the fact that you were the first black actor to play Cleopatra on the British professional stage. But before we talk about your role, I just want to know from you, what does the term black signify?

Dona:

Um, it means a specific experience something that people who are non-black will never have and will never understand or appreciate. And more importantly, the vast majority of non-black people don't acknowledge the experience. That's a huge difficulty.

Varsha:

It's much more, you're saying than say a political label, it's much more than even a cultural label, it's much more about that every day lived experience with all of these inherited histories as well

Dona:

Yes. In Europe, certainly, and in America, absolutely. But if you live in a country where there is a majority black population, you don't realize you're black, because everyone's having the same experience. You only realize you're black when you rub up against non-black people. Um , and being black in an all black environments is joyous if you have being black in European environment to compare it with.

Varsha:

So I want you to try and go back to 1991 and Talawa's production opened and the first black actor to embody Cleopatra on the British professional stage, stepped into the limelight. D o y ou still remember what that moment felt like?

Dona:

Um , it felt to me as if it was a totally natural thing to do. If you are the queen of Egypt, Egypt is in Africa and I have African blood. That was a perfectly natural thing. I didn't understand what all the fuss was about. I realized later it was because Cleopatra is seen as a symbol of great beauty and black women in this society are not regarded as beautiful. I mean things have changed a little now, where you have Lupita Nyong'o on the front of magazines. That wasn't happening in 1991 and it didn't occur to me b ecause I've always thought I was beautiful. My parents told me I was. And so I assumed I was..and that I realized I didn't realize it at the time, but that was w hat t hat's a rgument w as about. 'How dare this black woman take on the part in Shakespeare, which is the most revered and beautiful part'. That's what that was about. But I didn't notice it. I just thought this is me ... completely natural and I didn't have to play her beauty and her sexiness. People try once you try and play it, playing sexiness and beauty is lost, you become a spice girl, you know? Um, you just are. Judi Dench played Cleopatra and she's a little rounded lady, but on stage, she was gorgeous. Cause she just believed she was. And that's how you have to approach those kinds of parts, I think.

Varsha:

What was your interpretation of Cleopatra then?

Dona:

I took her to the modern setting. I thought what would happen in the world if George Bush started dating Tina Turner? Can you imagine the wahalla..that's a Nigerian word for 'hoo ha'...I think it's a lovely word. Can you imagine the wahalla that would be...'her tawny front', 'this gypsy' and all those nasty things that they say now about Meghan Markle for instance. That's exactly what Shakespeare had written. And I thought this is, this is what's happened. A nthony has gone to...so, the c onqueror, t hey were t he colonizers. He's gone to Africa a nd he's gone native. He's wearing the jalapi, he's smoking the pipe, he's drinking the Palm wine, he's having a great time. And here's this gorgeous queen. He's got a black woman. Hey, what's not to love. But the colonizers see it as a total betrayal of their culture. That's how I saw it. And I saw Cleopatra enjoying the power she had over this man who thought he was colonizing her

Varsha:

She is quite clever isn't she? I feel like she's played, you're right sexily and beautifully, but she is a shrewd, amazingly political woman, isn't she?

Dona:

She's a very sharp operator. She knows exactly what she's doing. And there were times when I called upon the influences of Thatcher cause she was in power at the time and I watched a powerful woman in an ...environment of all non-black public school educated old men and how she manipulated them...for how many years... couldn't get rid of her. So sometimes I called upon her powers as well.

Varsha:

Completely different question. You've said in interviews that your greatest professional achievement is that you haven't gone mad and I love it. What is it about the British theater industry that is particularly maddening?

Dona:

The British theater industry was never designed and never looked upon black actors as anything other than people over there or people to open the doors or people to serve tea. If you go into the National Theater now you will see black actors, but if you go on to the top floor, there may be one. If you go into the canteen, there are lots of them working in the canteen. That thing about going mad is that I have seen over the years, lots of black actors have mental breakdowns. I think David Harewood did a program about his, in particular, but David Harewood is quite a successful actor now because he went to America. But if you're here working and working, I mean getting a break and doing the 'Merchant of Venice' 10 years after I'd started working and then meeting white actors who were just outta drama school and doing it. That shows you the difference how far behind I was and I could have said, 'I'm never going to get anywhere in this profession. I'm working and working. I can't get any breaks'. That will drive you mad and I've seen it happen to lots of people. So when I say my ambition is not to go mad, I really mean it. And also in the black community, mental health and sanity is not a given. If you go into any of the psychiatric hospitals, we are overrepresented and that's because the society is just not set up for us to succeed in that way. We can't expect and the glass ceiling and all the rest of it , we just can't expect to succeed and that's frustrating and some people are less robust than others and they go under...

Varsha:

Y ou. You have not gone mad.

Dona:

No. I don't know...lots of people think I'm quite barmy.

Varsha:

Oh , you did have this...we did have this wonderful glass ceiling shattering moment didn't we, very recently in 2019 and you played J ohn of Gaunt in 'Richard II' at Shakespeare's globe with an all women of color ensemble. By the way, I saw your performance and you were electric. Only issue I had was that you were killed off too soon...you died too soon.

Dona:

I think Shakespeare's very clever. When you have an older actor, get them on, give them a nice bit and then get them back in the dressing room. They can have a glass of wine for the rest of the evening. Surely, that's the plan...

Varsha:

Yeah. Juicy part but then you get to chill out ...great...Before we discuss role and your take on the role, what was your experience of working with that company of actors?

Dona:

Well, just glorious. Totally liberating to be in a room full of people who have the same experience as you of life in Europe, to have the similar backstories . So you say something and you're not thinking before you say, 'Oh, can I say this because it might upset him or her or the director. They'll take it the wrong way'. So you keep quiet, in that room, anything that anybody said, was understood...was taken on board...wasn't judged because we all understood it was a common language. We all knew what we were talking about. So that was fantastic. And then having this shared experience, which is what I guess most rehearsal rooms are like, but not for us because usually we're the one black person in the room. So usually that's our experience, but to be with a load, it was, it was superb, I loved it!

Varsha:

Totally different. Um, as well, way of operating and much quicker, I think..

Dona:

Yes. Yeah . Not having to explain everything and justify yourself.

Varsha:

John of Gaunt is an old man. And so how did you approach that?

Dona:

Um , as an old person , um, none of us played men. We played human beings who have objectives, who know what they want to do in the play, what they need to get done and some of them have to plot away to get it done. But um , it didn't seem, didn't seem odd to that I was playing a man. I'm just playing a person who has seen this in their lives and now sees the future differently and wants to get back to how things were . I think that's how I approached it.

Varsha:

...and talking of what he has seen and he has this wonderful speech, doesn't he..about Britain being 'this sceptered isle' and then he says that it's now 'bound in with shame' due to its own leadership. And you were playing this when the Brexit negotiation..

Dona:

Was at its height, yes..the line is , 'That England that was wont to conquer others/Hath made a shameful conquest of itself'. When do you know, people applaud during a Shakespeare speech? O n that line, they applauded... It w as extraordinary. Everybody on stage went 'what, what?' ...and I came off stage and then after that and on the press night and then it happened almost every night. Who cl aps d uring a Shakespeare speech. But suddenly the Brexit thing hit everybody, yeah

Varsha:

I mean sometimes you go and you see in a Shakespeare play, people are trying so hard to enjoy themselves. They're really trying...

Dona:

I 've paid 40 pounds f or this seat...I'm going to enjoy myself...

Varsha:

And all those kinds of things. B ut that night, the audience was with you. They did get a very different style of audience as well in the Sam Wanamaker at that time and I realized that everyone was attentive. They were with you...on that night.

Dona:

...even on those very uncomfortable seats.

Varsha:

Yes! and that's quite an achievement.

Dona:

I think the publicity , um, Adjoa made sure we got out to the right people and let everybody, cause we didn't want just to sit on stage and look out onto a sea of old white faces. But the reaction, nobody imagined that black women could tell a story. Nobody had seen that coming in the same way that they didn't see Maya Angelou coming or Toni Morrison coming or Bernadine Evaristo coming. It's not...because they've not seen it before. They can't imagine it.

Varsha:

Actually, I want to talk to you about that because I loved reading this , um , conversation that you had with Michael McMillan that was published in this edited collection, 'Shakespeare: Race and Performance'...the editor of that collection, Delia Jarrett-Macauley was also a guest on the podcast.

Dona:

I know Dee very well.

Varsha:

She's lovely...and um , one of the things that you said in that conversation was exactly what you just said. That reviewiers don't usually expect much from black actors. I too have written about, and think a lot about that, the lack of diversity in the reviewing sector as well. What sort of affect do you think that has on black actors performances or the way in which black actors, his performances are read and understood and seen?

Dona:

I don't know but I don't read reviews. I don't read them. Uh, I used to, like when I first started acting was great to see your name in print, but then I realized I never had a bad review. And I know I've done plays where I've been dreadful, but I never got a bad review. And it's because reviewers are frightened of looking racist. If they say, 'Oh, she didn't quite get this, or she didn't quite get that'.

Varsha:

But even if the notices or the reviewing is good, that doesn't do anything, does it? Because then that's as patronizing, it's like saying, 'Oh, you know, for a black actor you will wonderful. Or for a disabled actor you did very well' rather than...

Dona:

Yes, it's like my primary school, my infant school teacher, because my, I learned to read before I went to school saying, 'isn't she clever?' It took me 40, well , it was to her in 1950 whatever. Um , I took, took me 40 years to realize that what she meant was, isn't she clever for a black girl? But she didn't say that. So I just grew up thinking I was clever. I must've been insufferable child. But I did . The other thing of course is that, in the late eighties, early nineties , uh, the arts council said to theater companies, you're not using black actors and if you don't use them, you're going to get your grants cut . Suddenly there's lots of work. Suddenly my, my input was important and I said to one company, I don't know why you're asking me all these questions. I said, because I'm the first black actor to work here, aren't I...silence...the sound of sphincters getting tight. But yeah, that was , that was that. And also once they started doing that, the directors had no expectations of black actors. When I played Nerissa, I can say this now because the director has passed away, but when I played Nerissa, the director said to me, I think Nerissa is a bit older and wiser then Portia. And I think Portia gets a lot of this and he showed me what he meant. He put one hand on his hip and the other and his right finger, he wagged in my face. Of course, what I saw and heard was 'Aw miss Portia' ...I'm not doing that. So I never did it once. And what I did was so much more interesting, so much more layered and textured and human. So much better than he'd ever imagined that he never gave me a note. He couldn't say 'oh Donna at this bit, could you try that or imagine that'. He couldn't ever, cause I was, I had already gone past his expectations and the boys in the company had a book betting book on whether Donna Croll would get a note today...eight to one, fourteen to one...that's what they do. It was hilarious. He had nothing to say to me because I surpassed his expectations and I was very aware that that was the case. As soon as he waved that finger and I heard 'Aw miss Portia'. He didn't say that, but that's what I heard.

Varsha:

Absolutely, so reviewers and directors, they don't quite know how to critique these performances.

Dona:

It's getting better because now when you walk around the West End, there's a black actor in every play; Meera Syal is the lead in 'Noises off' at the Garrick...That would never have happened in the seventies never have happened in the eighties. In 1986-87 I played Jacinta Condor in 'Serious Money' by Caryl Churchill. Yeah. And my friend said to me, you do realize you're the only black actor in the West End who isn't singing and dancing.

Varsha:

Um , before we kind of finish, I do want to ask you this question often we hear a lot about what Shakespeare can do for diversity, but what according to you, are the contributions of black actors to Shakespeare studies and performance?

Dona:

The main thing, is the grounding of the work. When I first worked at Stratford, and you won't remember this, you're all too young, but there was a way of doing Shakespeare where everybody walked as the women, walked on their tip toes and spoke the verse like this and were terribly, terribly nice as if they could float away. They were so airy fairy. When I went back in , whenever I went back, because I have done, I'm not doing that. And that looks ridiculous. So you stand and you ground yourself and you speak the lines in the rhythm. Rap music, as Cicely Berry said to me at the RSC, she to me. She said, when in New York, I go to all the rap clubs, she said, because that's where they're the best speakers of verse on the planet. And once you understand that rap and Shakespeare are the same thing, how empowering is that? And you can just stand and say it , feel the rhythms, a cinque-pace and do it...said Dona wiggling about in her chair. Um , a nd that is something that ha s, has been taken on by everybody now doing Shakespeare, there's no more airy fairy farty. It's grounded. It's s trong and resonant . And I think that's a lasting legacy to what we've contributed to t he plying of Shakespeare in this country.

Varsha:

Yeah. So I think I really wanted to emphasize that, you know, it's not only Shakespeare who does things for diversity, but it is diversity that does things for Shakespeare.

Dona:

Absolutely.

Varsha:

Thank you very much.

Dona:

You're welcome.

Varsha:

That was Donna Croll talking about Cleopatra, John of Gaunt and the experience of black actors in rehearsal rooms and on stages in Britain . Next month we have a multiple award winning playwright who was an absolute hit with my students. She is...

Chris:

Hello, this is Chris Bush , and you're listening to women and Shakespeare.

Varsha:

So dear listeners adieu, adieu, adieu remember to tune in to 'Women & Shakespeare' streaming at Apple podcasts, Spotify and www.womenandshakespeare.com Until then, keep shattering those glass ceilings.