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Junior Michael McFadden (Broomall, Pa.) says that studying the portrayals of Africans and other black-skinned characters in Elizabethan theater offers a deeper understanding of the plays and their era.

A participant in Lafayette’s EXCEL Scholars program, McFadden is working with Ian D. Smith, associate professor of English, to examine these characters, usually played by white actors, and the face-blackening techniques used to create them. In EXCEL, students collaborate with faculty on research while earning a stipend.

“The period is interesting because of the black-white dynamic produced by European imperialism,” says McFadden, an English major. “We are interested in techniques of ‘racial cross-dressing’ and how this could affect conventional, accepted readings of many plays of the period.”

Understanding racial cross-dressing could reveal playwright responses to the racial dynamic of Elizabethan England in superficially race-neutral plays such as Hamlet, says McFadden.

Smith says the first part of the project entails documenting all period plays that involve black characters and address race and related cultural concerns, and to identify which plays have white characters ‘cross-dressing’ as Africans. White actors played the roles of black characters due to London demographics and the financial interests of commercial theaters.

“The important point here is one of representation; the English decided what blackness meant and how it was to be produced as a social identity,” says Smith. “Of course, this meant that whiteness was being formulated and produced at the same time, but according to very different assumptions about cultural agency.”

“I believe Mike will emerge from this project with quite a command of English drama at a crucial point in our literary and cultural histories: the first contacts between England and Africa and the momentous cross-cultural dynamics that ensued,” he adds.

McFadden describes Smith as a valued mentor whose enthusiasm for the project is contagious.

“I’m a big fan of Professor Smith’s approach — he goes straight to primary texts,” says McFadden. “It’s very exciting to feel that you’re seeing things, understanding texts, and finding connections in ways that are not only all your own, but all new. It makes learning an exploration. The freedom to explore in this way is a great boon to my reasoning and analytical skills.”

McFadden is co-business manager and art director of the Marquis Players, a student group that produces and performs an annual musical to raise money for hunger and homelessness causes. He also is a Writing Associate mentor, helping students improve their writing skills and guiding other Writing Associates.

Categorized in: Academic News