Who Was Shakespeare’s Muse? A Black Woman, This Play Imagines

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LONDON — We know her eyes were “raven black” and her hair like “black wires.” But so much about the mysterious “Dark Lady” in Shakespeare’s final sonnets is unknown.

In “Emilia,” a new play running through Sept. 1 at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, the British playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm centers on Emilia Bassano, one of the first professional female writers in Shakespearean England. The play imagines her as Shakespeare’s lover and muse — and as an even better writer. But Shakespeare goes from triumph to triumph, while Emilia faces the realities of being a woman in 17th-century Britain, and struggling to publish.

The play is a meditation and a provocation, staged with an all-female cast including Clare Perkins and Carolyn Pickles.

Here are edited extracts from a conversation with the play’s director, Nicole Charles, about Shakespeare, race and gender in an era of “woke” politics.

The play has opened to great acclaim. To me, it feels like theater made by women taking a next step. It feels raucous, it feels transcendent. How did it come about?

Michelle Terry, the Globe’s artistic director, approached Morgan Lloyd Malcolm to say that she’d learned about this woman called Emilia Bassano. Could she be Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady”? She seemed like the most likely candidate; I don’t believe it could be anybody else. We know her as one of the first published poets in Renaissance England, but we know very little about her life and her achievements.

The things we do know about her are that she took her husband’s brothers to court to fight for her inheritance, and she set up a school that folded. She did extraordinary things, things that women of her station weren’t supposed to do. To publish was essentially to make yourself known, and it was a terrible thing for a woman to be known. It had all sorts of connotations.

Her work is so feminist, such a rallying cry to women, and to men — to think about how they see women. She was an educated, extraordinary figure. That definitively motivated me.

Your production turns her into a black British woman. Why?

I’m always on the hunt, finding out stories of black Britons that we don’t know about. We didn’t come over here for the first time in the 1950s, black people lived here before that. Emilia might have been of color, might have had a mixed heritage. There is just no evidence of that, because people had no interest in recording it.

It was really interesting to me that she was an epic poet and was educated, and had this sort of social ability that was so hard to acquire in those days — to be this sort of bohemian writer and thinker, as well as a woman of the court.

We really thought about this woman’s life and what she might have had to face. Regardless of the appearance of women in those days — so buttoned up, and tucked in and corseted — how were they feeling? What did they want, what were they crying for? How did they get around things?

We decided, let’s make her into a full woman and let’s give her words we knew she would have wanted to say. And that was our starting point.

You are an actor yourself. That must have given you some insight into the work, and shaped how you built the production.

Insight — I didn’t feel like I always had it. I had to really hold on tight to it in the rehearsal room. This is my first main house production. The Globe took an extraordinary risk, and it’s something that I took very seriously.

I started as a professional actor when I was 16. After, I decided I wanted to train. I wanted to get a degree and intellectually develop myself. So I went off, and obviously I got a lot of debt from university, which was probably a bad move. But never mind, you live and learn.

Shakespeare’s Globe was started by Sam Wanamaker, an actor. Mark Rylance was artistic director; an actor. Michelle Terry is now the artistic director; an actor. It really felt like I was in an actor’s space.

Shakespeare’s Globe is built near the Bard’s original playhouse, and you’ve put him onstage. And yet, the play feels very contemporary.

Shakespeare was hugely experimental. When he built the Globe and when he wrote a play, it was like an experiment to see how the audience would take it. For me to work here as an actor and director, how do I make a production in which the audience experience is as close to Emilia’s emotional journey as possible?

It was important to reflect Emilia’s story with a contemporary mirror, so that she feels important to us as a figure today, as a woman of the world. She reflects back to us our own strength and potential, and our own fire and our fight.

This is part of me. And I feel very fortunate to have joined the ranks of the women of color who are directing on London’s main stages. We are few.

Original Article

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