Black Actors Who’ve Tackled the Bard

Condola Rashad is starring in Romeo and Juliet. Here are 14 other stars who have done Shakespeare.

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    Condola Rashad

    Before the age of 30, Rashad has already earned more accolades in her brief acting career than some do in a lifetime. Rashad has appeared in two Broadway productions, 2012’s Stick Fly and 2013’s Trip to Bountiful, and earned Tony nominations for both performances. Her track record has made her latest Broadway production one of the most buzzed-about of the season. She is currently starring in a modernized production of Romeo and Juliet, which features a multiracial cast, including English film heartthrob Orlando Bloom as Romeo. Rashad joins a long line of black actors who have tackled the classic works of Shakespeare.

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    Chiwetel Ejiofor

    Ejiofor has already generated Oscar buzz for his performance in the forthcoming 12 Years a Slave. If he does receive an Academy Award, he can add it to the other honors he has already earned. He won an Olivier Award (the English equivalent of a Tony) for his portrayal of Othello in 2008. That same year, the Nigerian-English actor was appointed an officer of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth — one of the highest-ranking honors available to an English citizen — for his contribution to the arts in the United Kingdom. Ejiofor started his classical career in 1999 as Romeo. He earned a nomination for an Ian Charleson Award, which honors the most gifted stage actors under 30 in England.

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    James Earl Jones

    Jones is known for having one of Hollywood’s most recognizable and distinguished voices, which made him well-suited to portray legendary film villain Darth Vader, as well as a host of Shakespeare’s leading men. For years Jones, who has won two Tonys and an honorary Academy Award, was a staple of the New York Shakespeare Festival, also known as Shakespeare in the Park. He appeared in The Merchant of Venice, King Lear and Hamlet but is perhaps best known for his performance as Othello. Here you can watch him perform an excerpt from Othello at a celebration of poetry at the White House in 2009.

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    Jeffrey Wright

    Wright has established himself as an actor with a flourishing career in theater as well as film and television. Like Jones, Wright has turned in multiple critically acclaimed performances in the New York Shakespeare Festival. In addition to appearing in Othello (though not in the title role), he also appeared as Marc Antony in Julius Caesar. As a testament to Wright’s emergence as one of the most respected classical actors, he was among the notables selected to appear in Shakespeare in the Park’s 50th-anniversary gala staging of Romeo and Juliet alongside Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline in 2012.

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    Sabrina Le Beauf

    Many wondered whatever happened to the actress who played Sondra from The Cosby Show. The short answer is she became a classical actress. Le Beauf regularly appears in productions at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., where Broadway veterans and Hollywood stars flock to perform the classics. Le Beauf’s recent starring roles were in productions of Taming of the Shrew and Love’s Labour’s Lost. (Fun fact: The actor who played her on-screen husband, Elvin, in The Cosby Show, Geoffrey Owens, co-stars with Condola Rashad in Romeo and Juliet.)

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    Marianne Jean-Baptiste

    She earned an Academy Award nomination for her 1996 performance in Secrets and Lies and widespread international recognition for her co-starring role in the series Without a Trace, but Jean-Baptiste is also an acclaimed stage actor. A graduate of the prestigious classical training ground the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, her performance in Measure for Measure early in her career earned her an Ian Charleson Award nomination, an honor reserved for the most talented English stage actors under the age of 30.

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    Paul Robeson

    When it comes to African-American classical actors, Robeson was a trailblazer. He became the first black actor of the 20th century to portray Othello on Broadway. Much like James Earl Jones, Robeson is best remembered for his authoritative baritone voice, which made him a standout theater actor as well as acclaimed singer. Though his career was cut short by the political witch hunts of the McCarthy era, Robeson’s performances of the standard “Ol’ Man River” from the musical Showboat in the Broadway production and the film are still considered some of the greatest musical performances of all time.

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    Tamara Tunie

    Tunie is well-known for her performances on television programs like Law & Order: SVU but she is also an accomplished classical actor. Tunie appeared alongside Denzel Washington in the Broadway revival of Julius Caesar and has appeared in many productions with the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, including All’s Well That End’s Well, Antony and Cleopatra and Two Gentleman of Verona.

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    Laurence Fishbourne

    In 1995 Fishburne made history by becoming the first black actor to portray Othello in film.

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    Keith David

    David is best known to mainstream audiences for his character roles in films like There’s Something About Mary and Barbershop, but he is also an acclaimed classical actor. He has appeared in Titus Andronicus and as Othello in Shakespeare in the Park productions.

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    Lisa Gay Hamilton

    Though best known for her co-starring role in the long-running series The Practice, Hamilton is a widely respected classical actor. She made her debut in the New York Shakespeare Festival in Measure for Measure in 1993. A graduate of the Juilliard School, she also appeared in Two Gentlemen of Verona and Henry IV.

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    Courtesy of Adrian Lester

    Adrian Lester

    Though best known to American audiences for his stint as Ellis, Joan’s actor boyfriend on Girlfriends, in London Lester is known as a celebrated classical theater actor. In 2000, early in his career, Lester received a British Independent Film Award for his appearance in the film version of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. He portrayed Othello in a 2013 production at the National Theatre in England. In 2012 Queen Elizabeth appointed him an officer of the Order of the British Empire for his accomplishments in the creative arts.

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    Henry Lennix

    Lennix has appeared in major roles in films like The Five Heartbeats and on television shows like Commander in Chief but in 1999 he landed a coveted role in the film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, in which he starred alongside Academy Award winners Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange. Lennix earned raves for his portrayal of Aaron the Moor.

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    Denzel Washington

    Washington starred as Brutus in the 2005 hit Broadway revival of Julius Caesar. This was not Washington’s first foray into classical theater. He starred in the 1990 Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard III.

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    Angela Bassett

    Though best known for her critically acclaimed portrayals of real-life women (she earned an Oscar nomination for her depiction of Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It and an Emmy nomination for her portrayal of Rosa Parks in The Rosa Parks Story), Bassett has also made her mark bringing classic fictional characters to life. In 1998 she portrayed Shakespeare’s best known, and most feared, female character, Lady Macbeth, in an all-star production of Macbeth with Alec Baldwin. Variety called her performance “electrifying.”

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