The Tennessee Shakespeare Company’s version of The Tempest opens tonight in the outdoor amphitheatre at Shelby Farms Park.
Actor Johnny Lee Davenport plays Prospero and actress Amelia Hammond plays his daughter Miranda.
Davenport is black and Hammond is white. This Tempest is asking the audience not to notice the actors’ races and only notice their relationship on stage. This kind of casting is often called colorblind casting, but Davenport doesn’t think that’s a very apt term.
“Colorblind…I don’t know. We can never be colorblind. We can be color aware. And we can be color acceptant,” Davenport said. “If the plays are well written enough, then it will transcend race, creed, or color, which has enabled me to play many parts in Shakespeare.”
Arizona State University Professor Ayanna Thompson has written books about colorblind casting. She says it doesn’t usually happen in films or on television because those mediums are wedded to reality.
“So you are not going to see an Asian woman with a white child,” Thompson said.
But live performances can be more spontaneous and colorblind casting in not uncommon. “Stage is, I think, the most experimental, and opera even further than that,” Thompson said. “Often you’ll see, you know, large, black women playing Madam Butterfly, right, who is supposed to be a young Japanese woman.”
Tennessee Shakespeare Company Founder Dan McCleary cast the show. “It does me no good to put up a cast that doesn’t at all look like, or sound like, our audience,” McCleary said. “Then I can’t sit here and tell you, for instance, that William Shakespeare and Tennessee Shakespeare Company is wanting to make Shakespeare relevant—well, right off the bat it looks irrelevant.”
The Tempest has a happy ending. Everyone is forgiven, even the characters who don’t really deserve it. The final lines of the play are delivered by Jonny Lee Davenport as Prospero and ask the audience for applause:
As you from crimes would pardon'd be
Let your indulgence set me free.
And that’s what McCleary says this Tempest is all about—the words of William Shakespeare.