Paul Robeson, the great 20th-century actor, commands the Edison and Newman Room at Houghton Library, in a life-size theater poster from “Othello,” one of dozens of artifacts in an exhibit marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
Robeson’s gaze is intense and unsettling, and reflects the “complex engagement black actors have had with Shakespeare,” says Dale Stinchcomb, curatorial assistant for the Harvard Theatre Collection at Houghton.
“While historically Shakespeare’s texts have been the province of white elites, they nonetheless speak convincingly to the experience of ‘others,’ as well as to concerns we tend to think of as modern: race, class, and gender,” Stinchcomb says. “‘Othello’ dwells so much on the social repercussions of blackness that it must have presented both an agonizing and an enticing role. This feeling of close and ambivalent identification is not unusual.”
In celebrating the Bard of Avon — April 23 is thought to be the date of both his birth and death — the Houghton exhibit also recognizes the art and activism black actors have brought to Shakespeare’s works.
“Robeson was one of the most recognizable African-Americans of his time internationally,” says Stinchcomb. “He must have had incredible courage to persevere. He was a very principled man, and his Othello possessed the same unstrained nobility.”
Robeson performed in “Othello” at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge in 1942. A year later he took the role to New York for a production that still stands as the longest-running Shakespeare play on Broadway — 296 performances before a national tour. Robeson called the shots, Stinchcomb says, insisting on performing only for integrated audiences. “He was an uncompromising activist.”
Matthew Wittmann, curator of the Harvard Theatre Collection, said that the work of African-American performers like those featured in the exhibit shows how “malleable” the Shakespeare canon is.