Barbershops have a well-deserved reputation as social hubs in African American neighborhoods, so Mark Williams was curious when he noticed many young patrons spend their whole visit looking at their phones. “In many barbershops, regardless of demographics, you could be in a barbershop up to two hours, an hour and a half, and all the kids were doing was looking down.” The observation turned into a question that motivated Williams’ new outreach program, Shakespeare in a Chair: “Wouldn’t it be interesting if we could help utilize some of that idle time that we have in barbershops?” His next question was, “If I wanted to teach something, what would it be?”
Williams, a sales and marketing executive in the cable television industry, had traveled widely for work between his upbringing in New York City and settling down with his wife and four children in North Carolina. Williams had read Shakespeare in high school and college, but when he met Bernie Simmons, a friend and mentor, in Charlotte, he was newly inspired. “Whenever we meet for lunch or something like that, she would always refer to Shakespeare or Greek mythology, and I was like, ‘Bernie, how do you know that?’ She told me that when she was a child, her parents didn’t let her have any idle time, and she read all of Shakespeare’s plays.” Williams chose Othello for its timeless themes of love, jealousy, and honor.
Next, Williams approached Allen Jackson, the owner of Slicers Barbershop and Styling Lounge in Pineville, a town of 7,500 on the outskirts of Charlotte, with his idea of having kids read and talk about Shakespeare in the shop . Williams met with Jackson and the other barbers two nights a week for three hours after closing, and they studied Othello for eight weeks. At first, they read the No Fear Shakespeare edition for its side-by-side translation into modern English, but as they went on, they “were so excited by Shakespeare’s words” that they delved into other versions and researched phrases and concepts online.
The group viewed the North Carolina Dance Theatre’s performance of Lar Lubovitch’s ballet version and watched videos of James Earl Jones’ performance at the White House. An English professor at a local college helped Williams with a scene-by-scene guide to the play, and students from another institution assisted with PR and outreach. He used a $1,000 grant from The Pollination Project to build a website and acquire books for the shop.
Finally, Williams, Jackson, and the others were ready to launch Shakespeare in a Chair. Williams spread the word and distributed materials through local churches, flyers, the local news, and social media, and on July 14, they began another 8-week reading cycle: this time with kids. They’ve found that pairs and small groups work best: “Reading in a group is much more fun and engaging than reading alone,” Williams points out. “I really do believe that learning Shakespeare as early as possible is really going to determine your love of learning because we’re kind of making you think about things you weren’t thinking about before.”
Williams practices what he preaches at home, too, rising with this daughters to read Shakespeare for an hour every morning. In addition to the regular reading group with kids, Slicers hosts a Monday night Shakespeare Reading Club for whole families. A magnetic board covered with colorful letters for younger children to practice spelling Shakespeare’s name, characters, and titles is a Shakespearean spin-off on the Soul Train Scramble Board. Adaptations of Othello play on the shop’s TV.
Williams, who has been active as a Big Brother for three years, is adamant that the kids engage with Shakespeare within their own community, with people they already know. He sees his role as helping the barbershop become a place for critical thinking, where better reading is a step to bigger dreams. As his mentor Bernie Simmons likes to say, “The more you read, the smarter you get.” Simmons and Williams aren’t the only ones who see life-changing potential in the study of Shakespeare. Williams says the anthology Living With Shakespeare “led [him] deeper and deeper” in study. Perhaps most influential has been Laura Bates’ book, Shakespeare Saved My Life, the story of prisoner Larry Newton, who first read Shakespeare in solitary confinement.
Williams is working to expand the project, with plans to build Shakespeare libraries in barbershops and salons across all demographics. “I just want to give this small town a little bit of love,” he says. “I’m learning and I’m taking this journey along with the barbers and along with the students and along with the parents. Rather than just talking about it, I feel grateful that I’m doing something.”