Has Anyone Noticed That Romeo Is Black?

My American sensibilities made me think that a black man playing Romeo was important. But it turns out that this was just theatre to die for.

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Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

LONDON—Romeo is black. And no one cares. While this might be big news in America, no one in London is making any fuss about Adetomiwa Edun in Romeo & Juliet, playing through August 23 at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Here, it’s just damn good theater. No nuance, no emotional triggers playing on Edun’s ethnicity.

I admit that I was excited and skeptical about it, feeling very American in my belief that this was astonishing news and curious about how the Globe Theatre’s audiences would respond. I watched with a grin, caught the Bard’s lines flying and peeped that black man kissing a white woman on stage, out in the open for the Globe to see. And my perception of racial politics, which is a vicious mixture of pride, historical memory and fear, ebbed and flowed, but never washed up onto the stage.

Today, like in any other theater, there is always opportunity for race to play center stage. But not in this production of Romeo & Juliet. After the play, I walked out into the London night feeling like they had triumphed over me, the naïve American who wanted those winks because I was used to American entertainment playing to our perceptions of race. But I was denied that quick satisfaction and found the true essence of Shakespeare.

Perhaps it’s the text. Classic, timeless and true, with lines like “either my eyesight fails or thou look’st pale,” delivered to Romeo with nary a nudge. Romeo & Juliet opened the Globe’s season with flair, boasting a diverse cast with at least four noticeably non-white faces on stage. The star himself acknowledges his ethnicity with respect to the doomed lover, but he also boasts the Cosmopolitan environment of the Globe Theatre and Europe.

Edun gave a commanding performance, leading the charge with swagger, even once smitten by his young lover, and it is a perfect example of exceptional acting. Edun isn’t the first black Romeo, but he’s definitely one of the youngest. But his youth didn’t show through; he came with it, performing the role with confidence, commanding the stage and swooning the masses who were more privy to his fate than himself.

In an interview with The Root, Edun said that the Globe is like no other theater. There is no hiding, no pretending, he says. “The audience is willing to grow with you. Suspend disbelief," he says. "The job of the performer to validate and justify that. Meet in a neutral space. The performance won’t take you if you aren’t willing to go. You have to be complicit.”

In this setting, he couldn’t be more correct. The Globe’s audiences come expecting classic performances, and they are so close to the action that the approval rating is as broad as the sun shining down through the thatch-rimmed open roof. The orchestra stands to watch, leans on the stage and is in direct contact with the actors, making this interplay a spectacle itself. After this particular evening’s performance, many audience members were thrilled by the work of the diverse cast. Just another great production at the Globe.

Jason W.H. Page is a writer who’s lived all over the United States. He now lives and works in London.