“There is not one Juliet. There has never been”: the racist backlash against the casting of Francesca Amewudah-Rivers shows how far we still have to go


Heather Gosling (She/Her) investigates the racist backlash against actress Amewdah-Rivers playing Juliet in an upcoming West End production Romeo and Juliet

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By Heather Gosling

The role of Juliet should be a dream role for any young actor. However, earlier this month Francesca Amewdah-Rivers received hateful backlash after she was cast alongside Tom Holland’s Romeo in an upcoming West End production Romeo and Juliet. News of Amewdah-Rivers’s casting was announced in late March, alongside the rest of the cast which includes Doctor Who’s Freema Agyeman and Heartstopper’s Nina Taleghani. ‘Romeo & Juliet’ runs at the Duke of York’s Theatre from 11 May to 3 August and marks Amewudah-Rivers’ West End debut. The actress has previously starred in ‘Macbeth and Othello’ in London theatres, she also appeared in two seasons of  the BBC’s ‘Bad Education’ The play, directed by Jamie Lloyd, is branded as a  “pulsating new vision of Shakespeare’s immortal tale of wordsmiths, rhymers, lovers and fighters”.
 Tickets sold out within a day of their release. And, what should have been a moment of joy for a young Black female actor breaking into a White-dominated industry, was but a day later a barrage of online hate and racist comments flooded onto social media. Online commenters attacked Ameerah-Rivers for not looking feminine enough to play Juliet, some also cruelly ‘joked’ that no Romeo would ever die for her. These comments show that misogynoir (a prejudice against Black women) is an ongoing issue that Black actors face. Last year, Halle Bailey experienced similar vitriol online for playing Ariel in The Little Mermaid, and the cycle seems to continue. The production company released a statement condemning what they described as “a barrage of deplorable racial abuse online.” The statement continued with a clear instruction: “This must stop. We are working with a remarkable group of artists. We insist that they are free to create work without facing online harassment.” The fact that this statement is necessary in 2024 shows that the “culture wars” are still raging on in the world of theatre.
Casting decisions often take the centre stage, and are among the most discussed online in the lead-up to the production. This is particularly true with Shakespeare and other contemporary adaptations of classical plays. Is there something about Shakespeare that we see as connected to our national identity and ‘Englishness’? Perhaps this is why many feel strongly about casting BAME actors playing roles that are canonically viewed as White. However, Shakespeare’s plays tackle universal themes of the human condition: love, friendship, jealousy and indecision, and they bind us together and make Shakespeare relatable and accessible. Claims that we must keep characters in Shakespeare White hamper our ability to reinterpret and reimagine his plays.
Moreover, the backlash against the casting of Amewdah-Rivers claimed to oppose inaccurate casting, yet this presupposes the idea that Juliet is a historical figure and not a fictional character. The first Black actress to play Juliet was Rachael Baptiste, an Irish woman who performed in the mid-1700s. In London, the first Black Juliet was Elizabeth Adere in 1981 at the National Theatre.  There have been many productions of Romeo and Juliet throughout time, and as Dr Sophie Duncan stated via X, “There is not one Juliet. There has never been”. Shakespeare is constantly being interpreted in new and exciting ways, Amewdah-Rivers is a part of a long, diverse history of Juliets.
Hundreds of predominantly Black female and non-binary actors have signed a petition in support of Amewdah-Rivers. The statement reads: “Too many times theatre companies, broadcasters, producers and streamers have failed to offer any help or support when their Black artists face racist or misogynistic abuse. Reporting is too often left on the shoulders of the abused, who are also then expected to promote said show”.  And Amewdah-Rivers did this whilst facing vehement backlash. The open letter continues: “We want to send a clear message to Francesca and all Black women performers who face this kind of abuse – we see you. We see the art you manage to produce with not only the pressures that your white colleagues face but with the added traumatic hurdle of misogynoir. We are so excited to watch you shine.” There has also been a huge amount of support from the public, and the Jamie Lloyd production company, in support of Amewdah-Rivers, which is vital in showing that online abuse is not what any actor signs up for.
The message that this sends aspiring Black female actors is that their identities are fair game to pick apart, and their acting ability comes second to their racial identity. Being a good actor is about your talent, not the colour of your skin. Art is there to be reimagined and reinterpreted; this can change our perspective on Shakespeare in radically new ways. Amewdah-Rivers is a part of a long history of Black Juliets that will open our eyes to new possibilities, and shine a light towards more inclusivity within the theatrical world.