Royal Shakespeare Company: Director saddened by racist reaction to cast

A theatre director said she was “saddened but not surprised” by the racist reaction to her play’s black cast.

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s new production of Much Ado About Nothing is set in an Afro-futuristic world.

Artistic director Erica Whyman said the “disgraceful” reaction came from “a minority” of people and discriminatory comments would not be tolerated.

“The idea that Shakespeare’s plays belong to one group and not to another is nonsense,” she said.

The Stratford-upon-Avon Theatre announced the cast of its new production, directed by Roy Alexander Weise, in December.

Michael Balogun and Akiya Henry play the lead roles of Benedick and Beatrice.

While Ms. Whyman said the theatre had “a proud record of lots of representation”, she said the theatre company had questioned: “Have we often enough made sure that black artists can lead the work?”

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, she said the company felt it “incredibly important… to look at ourselves and ask why there is so much racism in the world”.

“It’s a responsibility for a cultural organization like mine to make sure we’re not just representing black culture on our stage but actually trying to properly understand what has been missing from our cultural world,” she said.

Ms. Whyman added that complaints about the casting “come from a place of ignorance about what theatre is and what story-telling is”.

In 2020, the company branded comments calling it’s Romeo and Juliet casting “garishly diverse” as “unacceptable and abhorrent”.

The RSC issued a statement to say its artists “interpret Shakespeare’s plays for our own time” and that “the team deserves to be treated with respect”.

It said: “We will not stand by when ignorant, hurtful responses are posted publicly. We must call them out as what they are: racist.”

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