Done Well, ‘Cultural Appropriation’ Brings Out The Best In Us All


A popular term these days is “cultural appropriation.” That means people of one race or group using something developed by another. It is generally used as a form of putdown, almost a curse.

On the other hand, last week I saw a stunning example of that. PBS presented a production of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing with a non-British cast. How dare they? The play, instead of being set in early modern Spain was set in 2019 Atlanta, and all the performers were African American. Talk about cultural appropriation! And it was wonderful.

Yes, for a handful of minutes hearing Shakespearean English coming from people who are clearly not Brits was startling, but the show was great. I understood it far better than when the English do it. The Brits have a way of swallowing syllables different from ours, and they’re really used to it. So when a great line sounds more like a mixture of the Bible and Klingon, their audiences really get the joke. When two of the leads, Beatrice and Benedict, first snap at each other and then, “overhear” pranksters saying the other is in love with them, immediately recognize their love, British actors toss it off casually. Here Benedict is essentially dancing around in his excitement as he comes into the audience to glorify his new love and Beatrice (Danielle Brooks) chats with members of the audience and eventually celebrates with a couple of moves that leave her cheering on her back, arms and legs waving in celebration. The humor may have been African American in some ways, but American is the key word. The behavior and speech was closer to mine than the British versions ever were.

And the audience loved it. I loved it. The performances and direction were first rate. It became a celebration of love and later a morality tale about the danger of malicious gossip, although, to quote another Shakespeare play, all’s well that ends well.

It demonstrates, of course, the universality of Shakespeare. Not only was the play performed following his script written more than 400 years ago, but it worked beautifully for people in today’s world. And we have seen Romeo and Juliet performed in opera, ballet and, of course as the musical West Side Story. Taming of the Shrew works as itself, but also as musical Kiss Me Kate and as the movie 10 Things I Hate About You. There are many other examples of how this kind of cultural appropriation brings new meaning.

We’ve seen this in so many other examples. The Seven Samurai, from Japan, works very well in the American west as The Magnificent Seven. The Anabasis, written by ancient Greek author Xenophon was made into a great movie years ago, The Warriors, using gang members escaping to home territory within New York City instead of Greeks trying to get home.

That is the problem with the term cultural appropriation. All cultures borrow from one another. We eat “Chinese,” “Italian,” “Jamaican,” “Thai” and a raft of others. Why? Because they taste good. American culture is made up of many cultures, and they mix and change. Years ago, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder sang Ebony and Ivory, where they extolled the beauty of mixing the black and white keys. And, of course, almost all our music does. But when some people claim that whites should not play jazz because it is “Black music,” they may ignore the fact that most of the instruments played were developed in Europe. And when we listen to popular music, it is clear that it owes debts to a lot of different sources. And it is the mixture of all of these that makes it better.

Art, music, technology and just about all aspects of life have roots in many places. In America, we tend to be a mix of different peoples, and culturally we are descendants of a multitude. Even more to the point, modern cultural influences have turned most places in the world into mixing bowls. Think of K-Pop, an outgrowth of Korean music that built on American influences and now has come back to us.

We need to appropriate just as we need to appreciate, and we need to adapt. The world is changing fast, and we need to be able to make it as good as we do it. We should use the best of many cultures, and we should also appreciate those cultures and salute them for their achievements.