Widgets Magazine


Don’t de-racialize ‘The Tempest’

The recent TAPS production of “The Tempest” fell far short of the mark in its treatment of race. If you haven’t seen it, “The Tempest” is about Prospero, a sorcerer and the rightful duke of Milan, who lives in exile on a Caribbean island with his daughter and their slave, Caliban. The story revolves around a shipwreck of other European nobles on the island, and among the typical hijinks of an Elizabethan marriage plot, the European characters imagine the utopian possibilities of an empty new world (“Had I plantation of this isle, my lord … and were the king on ‘t, what would I do?”). Meanwhile, Caliban, the son of the witch who was the original inhabitant of the island, embodies the racialized “other” against the Europeans as a sort of ambiguous combination of the white imagining of Native Americans and of African slaves; prior to his enslavement, he actually taught Prospero how to survive on the island.

I found it strange, and suggestive of privilege on the part of the production team, that the theme of race and the “other” was largely de-emphasized, or even ignored in favor of a spritely, magical presentation of a New World full of possibility. I believe that in the modern context, there is an obligation when reproducing works which contain and perpetuate racism and justification of colonialism to contextualize them meaningfully and to make clear that we do not continue to support these values. In the multiple essays published in the 54-page program, there was some brief acknowledgment of the violence of colonialism, but always distanced from the present viewer and buried behind the authors’ theses on other subjects. The production itself was inexplicably racially problematic in ways that were not artistically or historically necessitated.

The entire cast was white or white-passing, including Caliban (the student body of Stanford is 43 percent white, according to the Diversity and Access Office). Prospero justifies Caliban’s enslavement by saying he treated him well until Caliban allegedly sought to “violate the honor” of his daughter. The rhetoric of enslavement of a subhuman “other” to protect a white woman’s purity certainly does not become de-racialized just because all of the actors can be perceived as white. Although perhaps a legitimate interpretation of the script, I was bothered that the production team actively legitimized this narrative by having Caliban grab his genitals and literally lunge at Miranda in this scene, right at the beginning of the play. If the intent was to de-literalize the enactment of the racist fantasy of predatory men of color by having this character be white-passing (to the extent that that could even be possible), it might have helped to have some visible people of color elsewhere in the show to connote this.

What I found most alarming, however, was a scene in the second part of the play with Stephano, a “drunken butler,” and Trinculo, the king’s jester. In this scene, the pair are distracted by some fancy clothes, and they literally start voguing. Voguing is of course an art form by and for Black and Latinx queer communities, but in this play it was presented not in that context, but rather as just a fun way for the comic characters of the European court to dance. This scene actively continues the colonial legacy by treating non-European, non-white cultures like a costume one can don to revel in the possibility of a life outside of European normative power structures, only to reify the supremacy and necessity of these power structures to restore “order” to the world. This was a clear appropriation of Black art to decorate this “de-racialized” version of “The Tempest.”

I can fully believe that the racism in this production was the result of ignorance on the part of the production team rather than malice, but the outcome is nevertheless extremely problematic as it works to support white supremacy. While it is now too late to fix this production, I’d like to call on the artistic direction and on TAPS as a whole to work to repair this harm, perhaps by having a public conversation with students about how to better include the voices of PoC in future productions.

– Kai Kent ’17


Contact Kai Kent at kkent17 ‘at’ stanford.edu.