A Dance of Language

African-American Vernacular English and Shakespeare. Two forms of the English language that upon first glance could not seem further apart. One is an ever-changing, ever-expanding language birthed from survival and thriving in innovation; the words of a people who when the word gave them no space, created space of their own and thrived. The other is old, hidden behind a mysticism perpetuated by academics, theater makers, and the aristocracy. Taught to almost everyone in America, yet hardly made accessible.

AAVE, shorthand for African-American Vernacular English, is a heavily stigmatized dialect of English with a long and rich history. Enslaved Africans brought to America could only communicate with enslavers and each other was through English. Many enslaved Africans were separated from others who spoke their native tongue which served as an exchange of certain elements of their own individual languages. Additionally, following the 1831 Nat Turner slave revolt, every slave state—save Maryland, Tennessee, and Kentucky—1prohibited the instruction of English reading and writing to enslaved peoples. Those who were literate were careful to teach others in secret as states placed hefty fines on free Black people who taught English to those who were enslaved. Even after such laws were lifted, AAVE was not found in mainstream literary print and media until the Harlem Renaissance due to the racial judgement about it. Black artists and intellectuals such as Duke Ellington, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Louis Armstrong incorporated AAVE into their work which was rising in popularity and entering the American zeitgeist.

Since The Great Migration and The Harlem Renaissance, AAVE has spread to every corner of American society. More movies, tv shows, books, and music feature AAVE than ever have before. It has become so influential that even communities around the world have adopted terminology from AAVE, especially in London. Still, the dialect faces unwarranted racial scrutiny. When the Oakland Unified School District passed a resolution in 1996 to both use AAVE as a tool in teaching standard English and broaden understanding of AAVE, they were met with fierce scrutiny. Many cited the same tired and racist ideas of “it isn’t proper” “it isn’t formal” or “it isn’t ‘real English’”. In the highly publicized 2013 trial of the killer of Trayvon Benjamin Martin, a 17-year-old Black boy from Florida, key witness Rachel Jeantel faced fierce scrutiny and discreditation of her testimony due to her language usage, not the content of her statement.

On the other hand, there’s Shakespearian English, also known as Early Modern English or Elizabethan English. Early Modern English was still relatively young when Shakespeare was active (estimates put it at less than 100 years). Though he did not create the language, he was among the first whose use of this version of English was recorded. The first dictionaries had not yet been compiled and most documents were in Latin. This is why he is credited for contributing 1,700 words to the English dictionary. Another key aspect of Shakespeare’s writing is his usage of iambic pentameter, a rhyme scheme that can be found most prevalently in his monologues and soliloquys, but are all over his works.

Shakespeare is revered as one of the quintessential teachers of English. It is nearly impossible to find a graduate of the American school system who can tell you they never faced Shakespeare at some point in their K-12 education. His writings are multi-layered and the differences between Modern English and his English require study to uncover the full meaning of his works. It is perhaps this reason that people hold him in his seemingly untouchable space, but that is precisely the problem. Shakespearean English is not easy or intuitive, and without the resources we have today to be able to read side by side translations and summaries, it could feel impossible.

Again, doesn’t seem like there is much connection to be had between the two. And yet, James Ijames found a way to pair AAVE and Shakespeare in an intricate dance breathing life into the old, and letting the new shine in spectacular light. Fat Ham is an adaptation (kinda) of Hamlet, one of William Shakespeare’s most revered works. The show’s script demonstrates a mastery of language such that a reader can perfectly see and feel the entire show without ever seeing a production. The Pulitzer committee agreed and awarded the work the esteemed prize in Drama in 2022. The monologues, the play’s crown jewels, are the best examples of this dance of language. Much of Ijames’s language is AAVE, set in a structure that alludes to Shakespeare. What this does for the audience is activate a recollection of the Shakespeare studied in school, but presents it in a different context that is more familiar and accessible.

This demystification of Shakespeare both allows audiences to focus on the story over the language, and connects on another level with Black readers and audiences. Where in Shakespeare, things were hidden away that only certain people could decipher, the jokes, references, and shared experiences of Fat Ham are stitched into the fabric of these monologues and lines. It offers Black audience members a sense of home, of being seen and in the know, in contrast to most theatre, which often keeps Black people and their experiences out—save for stories of sadness, struggle, and survival. Fat Ham also creates this sense of belonging by poking fun at Shakespeare and the way his language and plays are inaccessible to a lot of people. At times it feels that Fat Ham is asking its audience whether there’s any use to language if it separates you from connecting with others. Why can’t it embrace change and connect rather than sit alone in a corner of its own mystification?

Fat Ham seamlessly facilitates a conversation between AAVE and Shakespeare that pushes audiences to think deeply about the meaning of language. The two compliment rather than compete with each other; underscore and highlight rather than drown; and throw harmless jabs centered on very idea of the utility of language and speech to express inner reality. By the end, Fat Ham leaves the audience with questions about what it means to possess language: Is there more strength in words or silence? What more can you say than “yeah?” How sweet is the quarrel? What is poetry? Why do we quote this dead ole white man? What is a cookout really? What is this quintessence of dust? Does language inherently have power, or is it the way we wield it that gives it strength?

Cleopatra Mavhunga