The University Record, March 5, 2001

RSC’s Oyelowo brings ‘genius’ to portrayal of Henry VI

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

Fiona Bell as Queen Margaret and David Oyelowo as King Henry VI. Photo by Manuel Harlan, courtesy Royal Shakespeare Company
In what theater professionals identify as colorblind, nontraditional or integrated casting, British actor David Oyelowo has become the first Black actor to play an English monarch for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). He will bring his version of Henry VI to campus in performances of Shakespeare’s history plays during the three-week RSC residency this month.

Michael Boyd, director of the RSC productions, and other directors contend that it is not the color of an actor’s skin that is important in casting a production, but the quality of performance. “David really is a bit of a genius,” Boyd says. “It is colorblind casting. His son will be white, and there is no hint of illegitimacy.”

Oyelowo, 24, whose family is from Nigeria, and other ethnic actors have endured stereotyping by those in the industry who feel that nonwhite actors have to “act their skin color.” British actor Karl Collins says, “With too many TV roles, there is still a sense that ‘Black’ is a character in itself.”

Oyelowo told a British paper, “Shakespeare did elaborate the facts in his historical plays, but I don’t think we’re meddling with history. After all, everything you see on a stage is only make-believe.”

When traditionalists exhibited outrage that a Black actor was going to play a British king, Oyelowo responded, “Theater by its very nature is make-believe. If I’m on stage and I say I’m in tears, you believe me. If I say I’ve got an army of 30,000 off stage, you believe me. I don’t know why if I suddenly say that I’m the king of England that is so much more controversial.”


RSC events, special broadcasts scheduled

Events celebrating the Michigan Residency of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) are in full swing.

UMTV will broadcast replays of English Prof. Ralph Williams’ popular lectures on the Henry VI/Richard III tetralogy, “Now Here a Period of Tumultuous Broils.”

Dates and topics are:

“There Comes the Ruin, There Begins Confusion” (Jan. 29), 4 p.m. March 5 and 8 p.m. March 6.

“Death in the Garden of Eden” (Feb. 5), 4 p.m. March 6 and 8 p.m. March 7.

“I Am Myself Alone” (Feb. 12), 4 p.m. March 7 and 8 p.m. March 8.

“God Say Amen” (Feb. 19), 4 p.m. March 8 and 8 p.m. March 9.

On March 11, UMTV also will carry a live broadcast and Web simulcast from Rackham Auditorium of keynote interviews with RSC Director Michael Boyd (2 p.m.) and Artistic Director Adrian Noble (3 p.m.). The interviews will be conducted by President Lee C. Bollinger and Williams. The programs will be replayed on UMTV throughout March.

UMTV can be seen on Comcast cable throughout the Ann Arbor area. A full schedule and details are on the Web at www.itd.umich.edu/umtv/.

Michigan Radio will air programs March 5–8 on “The RSC Residency, the Actors, the Production” during “Morning Edition” (7:50 a.m.) and during “All Things Considered” (4:50 p.m.). Topics are “A Look at the Plays,” today (March 5); “Portrait of David Oyelowo,” March 6; “Staging the Histories for Today,” March 7; and “RSC: Reaching Out to Michigan,” March 8. “Henry VI: What You Need to Know,” with Williams and Michigan Radio Manager Donovan Reynolds, will air 8–9 p.m. March 9.

Michigan Radio can be heard on WUOM, 91.7, Ann Arbor; WFUM-FM, 91.1, Flint; and WVGR, 104.1, Grand Rapids.

Two special exhibitions also have been mounted, one at the Special Collections Library and one at the Bentley Historical Library.

A sampling of public events was published in the Feb. 12 issue of the Record. A full schedule is on the Web at www.umich.edu/pres/shakespeare. Additional information is on the University Musical Society’s site, www.ums.org, and the RSC site, www.rsc.org.uk.