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Home :: Archive :: 1997 :: November ::
Othello in DC
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 8.1190.  Friday, 21 November 1997.

From:           Jung Jimmy <
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Date:           Thursday, 20 Nov 1997 14:37 -0500
Subject:        Othello in DC (and 2 Othello questions)

Othello

You know, the play about race relations and gender relations and love
and war.  They're doing Othello in Washington DC, and they're doing it
with a white Othello and a black cast, which, one would think would
emphasize the race issues.  But as it turns out, it is the gender
issues, not the black-white thing that seems the most intriguing.

Let me backtrack, Patrick Stewart plays a white Othello in a black
Venice.  Othello, Bianca and the governor and soldiers of Cyprus are
white.  So, in some ways, the immediate impact of Othello being entirely
different from everyone on stage is quickly diluted.  As a result, the
moments when the production forces you to reconsider your ideas about
race seem only to come when this white Othello is described as "black as
pitch."  It's hard to tell if your really reevaluating your ideas about
race or just being jerked outside the play for a moment because the
language and the action don't quite match.  More troubling is the
depiction of the black Venetian as more violent, more bestial, than any
white Venetians I remember.  The men that accompany Barbantio to roust
Othello in the first act are dressed as a street gang. black clothes,
woolen caps.  The Venetian soldiers come closer to plundering Cyprus
than in any other production I've seen; the riot includes a sexual
assault.  And when they march, the black soldiers have a minstrel gait
that makes them comical rather than soldierly.  I personally was
troubled by the sight of black soldiers being either more violent or
less noble than these same soldiers as portrayed by white actors.

This seems to stem, in part from a director who wants to focus on the
treatment of women, rather than the race issues in the play.  I don't
think that's an unworthy choice, but given the unique casting of the
production, it seems a shame to refocus on the gender issues.
Nevertheless, the one huge benefit of the choice is the opportunity to
see Franchelle Stewart Dorn's incredible performance as Emilia. Ms Dorn
has played queens and duchesses, Cleopatra and Gertrude; so it is almost
shocking when she creates this woman whose personality is so small,
crushed by an abusive husband.  From the moment she walks on stage,
without a line, she makes  you understand how she has been diminished by
this man and could betray her mistress out of fear.  Likewise,
Desdemona, Bianca, and one of the women of Cyprus are also portrayed as
the victims of the masculine martial society.

The set is amazing and apparently was built to emphasize the climatic
differences between Venice and Cyprus (at least that's what the
assistant director said), they do this by making it rain, which is
amazing, but seems to be more of a special effect than a critical
thematic element.  Othello, Iago and Desdemona all have moments where
they draw you into their tragedy, but the action and the acting are also
somewhat awkward on occasion.  Othello in particular shifts
disconcertingly from love to rage to nonchalance.  The play overall is
full of interesting choices, some that seem to pay off and some that
confuse.  Brabantio, for no reason I understood, is dressed as a
minister or priest and Othello and Iago debate Desdemona's virtue using
a chalkboard.  To see some of these choices in action make the
experience interesting, but this production seems to lose sight of the
play's race issues, in the very process trying to overturn them.

TWO QUESTIONS:

1.  I recall someone on this list describing a previous white-on-black
Othello.  Did I imagine that, or can someone refresh my memory?

2.  When Othello describes his wooing of Desdemona, I always recall him
trying to explain himself to the Duke.  Last night it seemed to me just
as valid and potentially more interesting for Othello to explain himself
to her father, who "loved him and oft invited him to tell the story if
his life." I thought by directing this speech to Barbantio, he is now
trying to explain himself to a lost friend, and it might become a little
more personal.  Has it been performed this way and how has it turned
out?

jimmy
 

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