“What country, friends, is this?” asks Viola when a shipwreck strands her on an unfamiliar shore. “This is Illyria, lady.”
Illyria, a country of classical antiquity, was by Shakespeare’s time already an archaic, inexact moniker for an area of the Western Balkans many times since reorganized and renamed. Shakespeare’s contemporaries had limited information about the region: Illyria was not a destination so much as a coast to sail along. Mystery bred an enticingly dangerous reputation. Measure for Measure and 2 Henry VI both suggest its shores harbored pirates. Shakespeare may well have chosen to set Twelfth Night in Illyria for its very unfamiliarity. With no facts to interrupt exoticizing fantasy or chimerical potential, he could make Illyria out of imagination.
As director Carl Cofield took up Shakespeare’s invitation to imagine, he found inspiration in Afrofuturist speculation. His production of Twelfth Night sets Illyria about thirty years from now to: “imagine greater justice and a freer expression of black subjectivity in the future or in alternative places, times, or realities”—to borrow from scholar Daylanne K. English’s definition of Afrofuturism.
For Afrofuturist writers, artists, and thinkers, imagination is a way of shaping change, as black science fiction author Samuel R. Delany writes:
We need images of tomorrow, and our people need them more than most. Without an image of tomorrow, one is trapped by blind history, economics, and politics beyond our control. One is tied up in a web, in a net, with no clear way to struggle free. Only by having clear and vital images of the many alternatives, good and bad, of where one can go, will we have any control over the way we may actually get there in a reality tomorrow will bring all too quickly.
By centering members of the African diaspora and their descendants, this production of Twelfth Night enters a centuries-long struggle to claim and reclaim Shakespeare. Marvin McAllister reconstructs one exemplary episode of this long history in his book, White People Do Not Know How to Behave at Entertainments Designed for Ladies and Gentlemen of Color: William Brown’s African and American Theater. During the 1820s in Manhattan, William Brown led a black theater company performing Shakespeare for mixed audiences at the African Grove theater. Their performances crossed racial, class, and caste lines and, in so doing, scandalized many white spectators, even in a New York lurching toward full emancipation and already home to well-to-do-communities of color. Beleaguered by police hostility, the white press, and an emerging form of performance—blackface—the African Grove closed its doors. But, as McAllister observes, it had already set the stage for black American actors—from the first international star from the United States, Ira Aldridge, to Henrietta Davis to Paul Robeson—to make Shakespeare their own.
Repeated, concerted, and often violent exclusionary efforts manufactured the myth that the Bard belongs to Anglo-Saxon, white, upper-class culture. But no one can claim Shakespeare as exclusively theirs; too much has changed in the last five hundred years, and the plays have traveled too far. There is no neutral Shakespeare. Carl Cofield’s Afrocentric take on Illyria does not add a layer on top of the text of Twelfth Night so much as dig into the play with a particular—and stated—set of questions. What can an Illyria that centers members of the African diaspora and their descendants unearth?
The following are a few of the “images of tomorrow” that emerged as our company asked: “What country, friends, could this be?”
Seascapes & Landscapes
Illyria is a cosmopolitan port city. Pirates, sailors, captains, and castaways find their way ashore to trade, steal, live, deceive, fall in love—or some combination thereof. Water imagery floods Twelfth Night, illustrating forces that overflow and overwhelm the characters: Mourning and joy are salt-water tears; fate is a tempest; “the rain it raineth every day.” Movement is constant, and fluidity the rule.
Transformation, migration, and water are also recurrent themes in Afrofuturism. Some artists’ work addresses the middle passage, the forced crossing of the Atlantic by enslaved Africans. Other Afrofuturist storytellers have drawn on the drinking gourd and the African Cosmogram Matrix, symbols which bring together the water, the stars, and the understanding of life as journey.
Currencies & Fluencies
Soon after washing ashore with the sea captain, Viola surmises that her musical and linguistic powers will win her the local nobles’ regard. In Illyria, wit and music are currencies, and Viola and Feste, who are rich in them, may go where others can’t, say what others daren’t, and get paid along the way.
During the Renaissance, music was associated with logical thought: a divinely ordered abstract system that made the will of God manifest on earth. Rhetoric and wit, on the other hand, were associated with the more irrational and chaotic realm of feeling and the passions. Dating to the beginning of the 17th century, Twelfth Night coincides with a historical shift away from this idea and toward a suspicion that music could also sway the passions, manipulate the senses, and even deceive people.
Music and poetry hold such world-ordering significance—and world re-ordering potential—for many Afrofuturist artists. Foundational Afrofuturist musician Sun Ra writes, “the earth cannot move without music. The earth moves in a certain rhythm, a certain sound, a certain note. When the music stops the earth will stop and everything upon it will die.”
Religion & Politics
By the time of Twelfth Night’s first performance circa 1601, Puritans, like Malvolio, were already frequent figures of parody on the Elizabethan stage: punchlines for their party-pooping strictness and anti-theatrical tirades. In 1642, Puritanical fervor would, at least temporarily, have its revenge: shuttering theaters, toppling Maypoles, and canceling holidays. For almost 20 years, there would be “no more cakes and ale.”
The Puritan represents the threat of a future that limits personal freedoms and polices individual expression—threats all-the-more menacing hundreds of years of colonization, fascism, oppression, and anti-blackness later. But Sir Toby punishes Malvolio to protect hierarchy as much as liberty. When Malvolio aspires beyond his station as a steward, he ruffles feathers in the pecking order: a punishable offense.
In her novel Dawn, Octavia Butler, often considered a mother of Afrofuturism, imagines a future where a mysterious group of aliens become the saviors, or perhaps captors, of the few humans who survive nuclear apocalypse. The extraterrestrials blame humankind’s self-destruction on a fatal contradiction: humans are both intelligent and hierarchical. Butler writes, “when human intelligence served [hierarchy] instead of guiding it, when human intelligence did not even acknowledge it as a problem, but took pride in it or did not notice it at all...that was like ignoring cancer.”
Women & Gender
The play’s leading ladies, Olivia and Viola, have their own money and no men. Both women are intelligent and fiercely independent. But Illyria is no black feminist fantasia. As scholar Daylanne K. English explains, “Afrofuturism can also imagine dystopic worlds to come, with contemporary injustices projected into, and often intensified in, the future.” What might we learn about how women move through our world by watching this image of tomorrow?
Viola must disguise herself as a man to navigate Illyria safely, while her brother Sebastian confidently resolves he’s “bound for the Duke Orsino’s court,” just as he is. Like Shakespeare’s other cross-dressing heroines—Rosalind, Julia, Portia, Nerissa, Jessica, Imogen—Viola achieves greater mobility in men’s clothes. But though she has taken up masculinity as armor, the play reveals it to be a cage: She cannot express her true feelings to Orsino; she must consistently act against her own interest in wooing Olivia for him; she’s coerced into a show of toxic masculine violence in the farcical duel.
As a woman, Olivia’s every move is subject to public scrutiny. She is constantly spoken of before finally arriving on stage in the fifth scene. But she refuses to let sexist gossip get in her way: She helms her household, steers clear of Orsino, and pursues the object of her desire.
Media & Technology
In 1811, influential critic A. W. Schlegel observed that Twelfth Night “treats love more as an affair of the imagination than of the heart.” Hundreds of years later, all that has changed are the technologies available to the imagination. The play teems with different media—music and flowers, letters and rings—and, in this futuristic setting, virtual reality.
Viola herself mediates, literally going between Orsino and Olivia, who do not meet on stage until the final scene. But the love-technician soon becomes a lover and beloved in her own right. When Olivia finds her love for ‘Cesario’ unrequited, she laments, “I would you were as I would have you be.” Whether with virtual reality goggles or the mind’s eye, she persists in imagining a Cesario who does not exist. Do media and technology connect or disconnect us? Or does the device itself become our intimate?
- Molly FitzMaurice & Patrick Young, co-dramaturgs