By Shaela Foster,
Special to the AFRO
Following the pandemic, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company (CSC) has attempted to diversify their organization.
CSC is a classical theater company based in Baltimore. They specialize in Shakespearian plays as they look to expose Baltimore to the wonders of classical theater.
The emergence of the coronavirus pandemic prompted members of CSC to rethink ways in which they engage with their community and how to better serve it.
This made them rethink what their stage looks like and if it reflects the community. Baltimore city is predominantly Black, so they wanted to ensure the actors on their stage displayed that.
“I think part of what we’re trying to do is, we need to see actors of color in every single role,” said Dawn Thomas Reidy, a production associate at CSC. “We exist in every facet of life and we have to normalize that and people seeing that on stage.”
This came into effect when they showcased an all Black cast of the play “Macbeth” in the fall of 2022. According to the producing executive director, Lesley Malin, this production was a major effort to showcase the Black artists within their organization.
Malin stated in casting, they ensure Black actors have a variety of roles to play, not just the background roles which Reidy says is normal for Black people to be placed in.
The Black Classical Acting Ensemble (BCAE) was the forefront of this showcase. BCAE is an affinity group in Baltimore for Black people to engage with Shakespeare and various classics. The production of “Macbeth” was the first display of this new affinity group and their efforts to diversify CSC.
Within the piece, they first wanted to identify which scenes would resonate with the Baltimore audience. They also included hip hop music and stage combat practices that were more afrocentric and inspired by the diaspora.
In BCAE they analyze numerous ways they can perform stories for the Black community that invites them in by exploring Shakespeare seeing where and how Black lives can be a part of the pieces.
The founder of BCAE, Gerrad Alex Taylor, states he sees theater as community service.
“Being in Baltimore, it’s our responsibility to serve the community and make whatever we’re presenting relatable to them,” he said.
Taylor sees affinity spaces important for society as they create a safe space for minorities to reflect on things that have happened within their communities and within the work they love.
“I think that allows that population to sort of move past or transcend some of the hurts or the harm or the injustice that’s been done and work to undo some of that or unravel some of that,” he said.
In an effort to introduce the world of theater to the city of Baltimore and surrounding areas, CSC has come up with Shakespeare Beyond. This program brings CSC into neighborhoods and communities across Maryland who might have limited access to their theater.
Within the program of Shakespeare Beyond, they’ve established the “Shakespeare Wagon.” According to their website, it’s a “custom portable performance unit specifically designed for outdoor touring performances.” This allows them to reach different communities that spread far beyond their own backyard.
The wagon offers free performances, workshops, learning experiences and various collaborations. Malin says they hope to connect with the community and highlight local groups with the wagon.
“This is a new initiative so that we can serve the parts of the community that maybe don’t feel comfortable coming into the theater,” she said. “It’s maybe crazy but we really believe that Shakespeare is for everyone and we want to put our money where our mouth is.”
The efforts to diversify the company starting with the stage and audience members can also be seen within CSC’s administration.
According to Malin, out of the 16 board of trustees members, 25 percent are people of color. Although the percentage is increasing, it’s still not where they want it to be, so she says they’re consistently looking for more people of color to join the board.
Last year, Taylor stepped down from his full-time position at CSC to pursue other adventures, but says during his time there he could see the various efforts that were made which led to the increase in diversity today.
CSC recognizes how switching audiences and expanding a company isn’t easy, but it’s something they feel is important and worth doing.
“You shouldn’t be forbidden to be able to act and make art because you’re a size 20,” Reidy said. “You shouldn’t be gate kept out of the artistic space because you’re a non binary actor or if you’re a Black actor, it just shouldn’t happen, especially not now. So, we’re trying to actively and purposefully address that on our stage at CSC.”
Shaela Foster is an AFRO Intern from the University of Maryland, College Park.