WHAT COUNTRY, FR “What country, friends, is this?” asks Viola when a shipwreck strands her on an unfamiliar shore. “This is Illyria, lady.”
For Afrofuturist writers, artists, and thinkers, imagination is a way of shaping change, as black science fiction author Samuel R. Delany writes:
Illyria, a country of classical antiquity, was by Shakespeare’s time already an archaic, inexact moniker for an area of the Western Balkans many-timessince reorganized and renamed. Shakespeare’s contemporaries had limited information about the region: Illyria was not a destination so much as a coast to sail along. Mystery bred an enticingly dangerous reputation. Measure for Measure and 2 Henry VI both suggest its shores harbored pirates. Shakespeare may well have chosen to set Twelfth Night in Illyria for its very unfamiliarity. With no facts to interrupt exoticizing fantasy or chimerical potential, he could make Illyria out of imagination.
We need images of tomorrow, and our people need them more than most. Without an image of tomorrow, one is trapped by blind history, economics, and politics beyond our control. One is tied up in a web, in a net, with no clear way to struggle free. Only by having clear and vital images of the many alternatives, good and bad, of where one can go, will we have any control over the way we may actually get there in a reality tomorrow will bring all too quickly.
As director Carl Cofield took up Shakespeare’s invitation to imagine, he found inspiration in Afrofuturist speculation. His production of Twelfth Night sets Illyria about thirty years from now to “imagine greater justice and a freer expression of black subjectivity in the future or in alternative places, times, or realities”—to borrow from scholar Daylanne K. English’s definition of Afrofuturism.
By centering members of the African diaspora and their descendants, this production of Twelfth Night enters a centuries-long struggle to claim and reclaim Shakespeare. Marvin McAllister reconstructs one exemplary episode of this long history in his book, White People Do Not Know How to Behave at Entertainments Designed for Ladies and Gentlemen of Color: William Brown’s African and American Theater. During the 1820s in Manhattan, William Brown led a black theater company performing Shakespeare for mixed audiences