Sir Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, and Paul Scofield—all three were legendary Shakespearean actors, and all three were white men. But that doesn’t mean there haven’t long been outstanding black Shakespearean counterparts.
That’s why the Harris County Public Library, in partnership with Main Street Theater, created Speak of me as I am: A Celebration of African-American Contributions to Shakespeare as part of its African American History Month programming. The reading series has actors from Main Street Theater’s Shakespeare for All program sharing historic stories, as well as scenes and speeches from the Bard, in an interactive, audience-friendly presentation.
Jonathan Gonzalez, MST’s director of education and outreach, says he’s excited to share the stories of these unsung artists through the stories and scenes. He hopes the series will demystify Shakespeare a bit for people, as well as resurface the names of forgotten greats including Henrietta Vinton Davis and Ira Aldridge.
“There is an ephemeral quality to the work of an actor not easily chronicled—yet their journeys are still noteworthy: many of them had to suffer the police shutting them down,” Gonzalez says. “Or in the case of Ira Aldridge, a journey to a different country to find the outlet for their art. Of course, racism is the familiar obstacle to all of their journeys, and yet their stories are not of despair, but of fortitude and joy.”
The Shakespeare program, which travels to four HCPL branches over the next week, is one prong of the library system’s monthlong series of offerings designed to showcase the impact African Americans and African American culture have had on the world. They run the gamut from genealogy workshops to readings and lectures. There’s also a series of arts events done in partnership with Houston organizations. One of those featured programs include Da Camera performances of The History of Jazz, which incorporates Dixieland, blues, and swing selections to show how the genre evolved from African American work songs, hymns, and spirituals. There’s a drumming class that helps kids not only learn more about African beats, but tones and music overall. There’s also a read-in, which blends author talks with a book fair.
Jennifer Schwartz, programming services manager for the Harris County Public Library, hopes these programs encourage Houstonians to think of the libraries as local gathering spaces. Offering far more than just books, the 26-branch library system is a place for language classes, discussion groups, and a host of events. These African American History Month events are part of that programming.
“When we share our collective history like this, we not only learn about it, we also reflect the different cultures across Harris County,” Schwartz says. “And it’s important that we reflect on history so that we can build a better future together.”
For Gonzalez, that future starts with honoring the past, in ways big and small.
“I believe Black History Month is richer when it celebrates not only the famous people who changed the world and culture in big and flashy ways," he says, "but also those people who are not as well-known, but whose stories have influenced in more subtle and quiet ways, and whose stories need to be told.”
For the full calendar of events and locations, visit hcpl.net.