Last weekend I attended “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” at Firehouse Theatre. The play was absolutely hilarious – I laughed through the entire thing. Essentially, the play attempts to cover every single play by William Shakespeare, all with just 3 actors. The three weave on and off stage, leaving the stage as Polonius and coming back a moment later with a crooked wig, a cheap tutu, and a high voice to play Ophelia. They drop character at various moments, to address the audience or voice their own opinions on the plays – at one point, the one playing Ophelia is upset to find that her brief time onstage is already over and decides to include her drowning onstage, by pouring a Dixie cup of water over his head and running offstage again. At another point, the same actor runs away because he’s sick of hearing about Hamlet and the other actors won’t agree to skip it, forcing one of his fellow actors to stall for time while the other chases him down. Some of the jokes verge on being actual criticisms of the plays (they combine all the comedies into one storyline, saying that they all have basically the same plotline anyway), while others are just utter absurdities.
In a way, this is a way of making Shakespeare accessible – it’s an uproarious and highly enjoyable (and somewhat bastardized) version of plays that in their original version are pretty tedious for the average modern audience member. But at the same time, it’s not completely accessible – you have to have read all the plays in order to get all of the jokes. Or, rather, if you haven’t read one of the plays, the only jokes you will get during that segment will be the ones based on absurdist (or as some might say, dumb) humor. Which will make you feel uncultured and dumb when you are the only one in your row looking confused after the actors reference a character you’ve never heard of and everyone cracks up.
Being familiar with Shakespeare carries a certain kind of cultural currency. Knowing Shakespeare makes you (appear) cultured, intelligent, well-read. And as with most things that carry cultural currency, you can fake it, or at least exaggerate it, and reap the rewards of it – until someone more knowledgeable about it comes along, and then you’re exposed.
I started thinking about this idea of cultural currency within the context of the play, as well, during the play’s version of Othello. The all-white cast ran into a problem with Othello, without an actor to portray the title character, and decided to perform it as a rap. (My first thought on this was, the problem of an all white cast is literally written into the play – has there never been a production of it with a black cast member?) It was a terrible rap, the kind of cheesy “My name is ____ and I’m here to say” rap that we’ve all heard a million times. Today, the only connotation it carries is being a cheesy awful joke. But I wonder if in 1987, when this play was written, if that kind of rap hadn’t yet been played out, and if it actually carried some connotation of blackness. Then came a brief segment that obviously was a more recent addition – when they finished the rap, all three hit a pose and called out in unison, “dab!” This was the 2016 version of a shitty rap – three white people pulling on an imitation of blackness to make a room full of mostly other white people laugh. The idea of cultural currency solidified here – just like knowledge of Shakespeare carried the currency of being smart, the knowledge of this dance move carried the cultural currency of “coolness”. Especially after the discussion of cultural appropriation at our last artist talk, this struck me as the heart of the problem of appropriation. Pulling out this bit of knowledge of black culture is like playing a card, cashing in on the cultural currency. Just like I could fake knowledge of Shakespeare (laughing at a joke I didn’t actually get) and reap the rewards (appearing “smart” and cultured), white people can (whether we’re aware of it or not) mimic blackness with mannerisms, speech, dance, music, etc. and temporarily reap the cultural reward of appearing in on it, without having to experience any of the racism that people of color experience. And just like with Shakespeare, your mimicry only impresses people who are less knowledgeable than you. Being “cool enough” to dab only impresses people who have even less knowledge about black culture than you do.
I’m not sure exactly how I feel about this idea of cashing in on “cultural currency,” but I’m interested to explore the idea some more. Is cashing in on cultural currency that’s not yours stealing? Are there ways to cash in on it that are harmless (like pretending to know Shakespeare) and some that are harmful (like mimicking blackness)? Is it always problematic or only in certain situations? Is it something we can avoid, or is it innately part of our social interactions? I think, at its base, cashing in on cultural currency is something that makes us feel included in something, or makes us appear knowledgeable about something, and this isn’t inherently a bad thing. But I’m curious about how this can affect our self-perception. After all, should we really feel so smart because we can remember the basics of King Lear from our high school English class? But then again, are we really hurting anyone by cashing in on it for the night and enjoying the feel-good hilarity of some good-old bastardized Shakespeare?