Friday, April 12, 2024

Art to enchant: Decolonizing Shakespeare

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Featured photo by MTSU Theatre and Dance

Story by Daniel Sheehan

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Middle Tennessee State University’s Department of Theatre and Dance is recontextualizing one of William Shakespeare’s most well-known plays, 400 years after it was written. 

“The Tempest” tells the story of Prospero, the former Duke of Milan played by Antonio P. Nappo, who has been shipwrecked on a magical island for 12 years and has enslaved the native creatures. The tale serves as an allegory of European colonialism, making the play a controversial subject among theatre scholars examining Shakespeare’s intentions.

Director David Wilkerson leaves no room for misinterpretation. The story, as he tells it, belongs to the natives. His adaptation features a framing device wherein the creatures, or spirits, gather to reenact the tale of their liberation.

“The play will start with them dancing in celebration,” Wilkerson said. “It’s become almost like a ritual, or a holiday. Every year they sort of dance to remember when they won their freedom.” 

While much of history is written by those in power, bookending the show with these ritualistic dances allows historically silenced voices a chance to tell their own story. In the case of “The Tempest,” that means allowing the spirits to present the play as a tale of redemption. They were seen as “less than” by their colonizers. They experienced great hardship while under the rule of Prospero, but they stayed strong enough to make it through.

Ariel, played by Julia Peasall, spearheads the group of spirits alongside Caliban, played by Naomi Laurent. The pair represent opposite ends of the spectrum of servitude. Ariel is a loyal servant; Caliban constantly rebels against his oppressor. The spirits will be adorned with ornate makeup and costumes to signify the untouched beauty of their native culture. 

According to Wilkerson, the production is part of a larger campus initiative to amplify marginalized voices. 

“We’re doing so much work as a department, and as a school, about decolonizing the curriculum and making sure that other people’s voices are heard and appreciated, and given space and time.”

The show ends with an epilogue by Prospero, in which he pleads for “spirits to enforce, art to enchant.” This line boldly states the mission that the cast and crew hope to accomplish: impacting audiences through artistic expression. Performing arts are uniquely positioned to embolden silenced voices, and open the minds of ethnocentric individuals. Wilkerson believes that exposure is the first step toward understanding.

“Anything that we can do to just further conversation. And theater can do that, by seeing the creatures up on stage and by being in the same room with them. Theatre’s like an empathy machine.”

“The Tempest” will run Feb. 22 through Feb. 25 at Tucker Theatre. Tickets can be purchased online or in person at the door. MTSU students, faculty and staff can receive one free ticket with their MTSU ID at the box office. 

To contact Lifestyles Editor Destiny Mizell and Assistant Lifestyles Editor Shamani Salahuddin, email lifestyles@mtsusidelines.com. For more news, visit www.mtsusidelines.com, or follow us on Instagram at MTSUSidelines or on X at @MTSUSidelines.

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