Francesca Amewudah-Rivers Is Playing Juliet. The Racists Who Think She Shouldn’t Just Don’t Get Shakespeare

Photo: Ian West/PA Images/Getty Images.
When it was announced that Francesca Amewudah-Rivers would be making her West-End debut starring as Juliet alongside Hollywood actor Tom Holland as Romeo, it should have been a celebratory moment. Instead, the young actor — who has already starred in productions of Othello, Macbeth as well as a BBC drama — was faced with a heartbreaking, but all too familiar, sequence of events in which she received thousands of racist and misogynistic comments online. The social media harassment got so bad, Jamie Lloyd, the theatre company behind the production, issued a statement condemning the “barrage of deplorable racial abuse online directed towards a member of our company”. And more than 800 Black actors signed an open letter, organised by playwright Somalia Nonyé Seaton, in solidarity with Amewudah-Rivers. “The racist and misogynistic abuse directed at such a sweet soul has been too much to bear,” the letter states. 
Amewudah-Rivers is a dark-skinned Black woman. Comments about her  appearance are not even thinly disguised as anything other than misogynoir. Commenters described her as failing to look feminine enough to be a convincing Juliet, pouring over and dissecting her appearance, and indulging in cruel “jokes" that no Romeo could possibly kill himself over her. There are racist characterisations of Amewudah-Rivers speaking in exaggerated Black vernacular, instead of Shakespearean English.
The most viral tweet railing against Amewudah-Rivers’ casting argues that Romeo and Juliet is a piece of “history” that shouldn't be “rewritten”. Worryingly, the post currently has 16k likes, despite the obvious fact Romeo and Juliet is a fictional story in which race is not a relevant theme, and these roles have been gender-swapped and played by various races throughout history.

This racist framing is familiar, but it’s still baffling why so many people online seem to think Amewudah-Rivers was a “diversity hire” rather than believing she was actually just the best actor who auditioned for the role? 

Concerningly, there also appears to be plenty of uncomfortable comments from Black social media users. Some seemed to Francesca as Juliet was an example of “black people being used as mascots for D&EI” to deliberately cause controversy and attention for the play (or “film” as many who didn’t bother to even read the announcement in full seemed to believe).
Others decried that no one Black asked for this (are casting directors meant to send out community surveys before making their decisions?). This racist framing is familiar, but it’s still baffling why so many people online seem to think Amewudah-Rivers was a “diversity hire” rather than believing she was actually just the best actor who auditioned for the role?  
The backlash Amewudah-Rivers is facing for simply booking a job is a clear cut instance of misogynoir playing out so cruelly on a public level. This is certainly not the first time a woman of colour playing a fictional character has generated so much online vitriol. Last year, it was Halle Bailey playing Ariel in The Little Mermaid. Recently Ambika Mod was met with racist online hate when she played the lead love interest in the Netflix series One Day. We all remember the bigoted reaction to Zendaya playing MJ in Spider-Man. South-Asian actress Avantika Vandanapu faced backlash as recently as last week when rumour circulated that she was playing the lead role in a live action version of Tangled (when Maitreyi Ramakrishnan expressed interest in the same role, she too faced an onslaught of racist hate). 
Social media provides a platform for outright racism and incentivises a rigid, perverse approach to identity. This mentality leads some people to actually think it’s progressive to support the exclusion of non-white actors from certain roles. Sadly, this prevalent (very online) way of thinking upholds race as something so immutably true — rather than a politically constructed idea — that it is no longer possible to reimagine art that stands the test of time beyond the constraints of identity. 
In recent decades, UK theatre has embraced a wider variety of marginalised groups playing characters who have predominantly been cast as white in the past. Paapa Essiedu played Hamlet last year, Danny Sipani is currently playing King Lear. Sophie Okendo has taken on Shakespearean stage roles for decades. As far back as the 1700s, Black actress Rachel Baptiste played Juliet in a production of the play in Lancashire. Colourblind theatre casting is hardly groundbreaking, so it feels disingenuous that an unambiguously Black female actress playing opposite a white Romeo in particular has caused this level of vitriol and outrage. There’s a clear bias against Black women being displayed here, which is undoubtedly even more severe due to Francesca being dark-skinned. A report by the charity Glitch, which highlights many of the same stereotypes prevalent in this case, suggests digital misogynoir is rampant and going unchecked by social media tech companies. 
Shakespeare, like much else, is part of the culture war battleground. Overly hyperbolised claims that updated versions of Shakespeare’s are yet another casualty of “wokeness” have gained prevalence both in the UK and the US in recent years, including fears that in the new “woke” landscape, Shakespeare will be stripped from school curriculums. Shakespeare, in the minds of some, is evidence of western cultural and racial superiority, and “being white” is seen as under threat from increasing inclusion or representation of people of colour.    
Photo: Ellie Kurttz.
The irony of this all is that Shakespeare’s magic lies in the universality of his storytelling. Shakespeare’s writing doesn’t transcend all historical or political context, but its breadth has always allowed for subversion, and reinterpretation. The themes of power in Macbeth, jealousy in Othello, or indecision in Hamlet do not reflect experiences within a socially constructed racial category, but that of the human condition. Claims that we must keep characters white reflects why oppressive ideas are so dangerous to the arts; it hamstrings our ability to reimagine and reinterpret, an essential aspect of artistic expression and the evolution of storytelling.   
The insistence on keeping Shakespearan characters white also ignores that it is unlikely that a modern categorisation of “white people” exists at the time Shakespeare is writing. His works are created at the very beginnings of the British Empire, before ideas that a darker skin colour, curlier hair textures or “Black” features denote any racial difference. The legal codification of racial categories in the British Empire doesn’t happen until 1661, 45 years after his death. His writing straddles a time when modern racial theories are not concrete, and the pseudo-scientific invention of “white people” is yet to occur. Shakespeare’s huge impact on the English language likely helped to form how whiteness comes to be defined as a racial category, but a non-inclusive approach to who gets to play certain characters is pretty ahistorical to the time Shakespeare actually lived in.     
With all this in mind, it was a relief to see the quick response by Jamie Lloyd stating firmly “any abuse will not be tolerated and will be reported. Bullying and harassment have no place online, in our industry or in our wider communities.” The open letter signed by 800 Black women and non-binary actors in solidarity with Amewudah-Rivers summed up the need for such a statement: “Too many times, Black performers — particularly Black actresses – are left to face the storm of online abuse after committing the crime of getting a job on their own.”
Public support in the face of so much public abuse absolutely matters (and it’s notable that it appears to largely be Black women condemning the abuse; notably, Amewudah-Rivers’ co-star Tom Holland has yet to speak out) but it’s difficult to get away from the message this debacle sends to aspiring Black female actors: that your appearance and identities are fair game to ruthlessly pick apart.  
Whatever trolls online think they are defending, it’s certainly not Shakespeare or any cultural heritage worth keeping. It serves as a reminder that the logic of oppression is about hollowing out culturally important works rather than reflecting an integral truth about art. Artistic imagination being defined by narrow notions of identity is not liberating, least of all for those at the sharpest end. And when all we have is bad art, everyone suffers.

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