The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0061 Monday, 19 January 1998.
From: Hardy M. Cook <
Date: Monday, January 19, 1998
Subject: "Playing Juliet/Casting Othello"
A few days ago, Lloyd Rose of *The Washington Post* reviewed a
fascinating new play, "Playing Juliet/Casting Othello," which is
currently at the Elizabethan Theatre of the Folger Shakespeare Library.
I have included the review below for your information. The work appears
to be extremely interesting, and I hope to attend as soon as possible.
I must also add that Kila D. Burton, who plays Georgia, has been a
member of SHAKSPER for sometime. Congratulations, Kila!
"Dialogue On Race"
By Lloyd Rose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 15, 1998; Page B01
"Playing Juliet/Casting Othello," which opened at the Folger Elizabethan
Sunday at the Folger Elizabethan Theatre, Theatre, recounts the
adventures of non-Equity Shakespeare trying to do the right thing with
"nontraditional" casting. Playwright Caleen Sinnette Jennings isn't a
sophisticated or subtle writer, but there's something touching, funny
and finally brave about the way her play wears its political heart on
its sleeve. Neither bitter nor glib, "Playing Juliet," in its simple
way, deals with racial issues more complexly than many more
professionally written scripts.
In Act I, the dark-skinned Georgia (Kila D. Burton), who plays Juliet,
has a crisis. Not only is her boyfriend against her acting, but she
feels too old and plain for the role and suspects that the white
director, Wendy (Susan Lynskey), has cast her because of white liberal
Georgia's boyfriend, Jimmy (a delightful Scott Leonard Fortune), shows
up at the end of Act I to help set things right, and when we meet him
again in Act II, a few months later, he's happily stage-struck. A
maintenance man by trade, he has brought some professionalism to the
company's haphazard set carpentry - and he's also glad to serve as a
blocking stand-in while everyone searches for a new Othello, the
original choice having gotten a better (i.e., it pays something rather
than nothing) job. Silly people, wasting all that energy, when the
answer is right under their noses.
There's a fairy-tale sweetness to Jimmy's story: The seemingly ugly
duckling proves to be a theatrical swan. But Jennings isn't content
with this; she pushes on to testier issues. Georgia finds herself
surprisingly ambivalent about Jimmy's success; Dave (Steve Lebens)
doesn't think an amateur will give him the support he needs to be a hit
as the villainous Iago; Lorraine (Rachel D. Spaght) doesn't want to play
the character of Bianca as a whore.
Georgia hates the fact that her boyfriend will be playing a violent
black male who kills a white woman. The white characters find it easy
to be impatient with Georgia's racial concerns, but she holds her
ground. Like it or not, she explains, in today's world, that sends a
nasty message. Also, she's not too crazy about playing Emilia the maid.
Lorraine throws in her support for Georgia. A light-skinned black woman
who is dating a rich white company member, Chris (Jeff Mandon), whose
father happens to be on the theater's board, she confesses that she
can't face playing a whore in front of Chris's dad -who, she knows,
already thinks she is one.
All this sounds as if it would be overly familiar and tiresome, but in
fact the debate is engaging and lively. The members of the company
genuinely like one another, but they bring different backgrounds and
realities to the situation. People who have seen "Othello" may find it
irritating that the black characters are worried - as many white
scholars have been - about Othello's seeming "dumb": This is a problem
that never arises if the play is done well. Still, it's worth
remembering that, of Shakespeare's tragedies, only "Othello" has this
nervous attention focused on the hero's flaw. You could just as well
fret that Macbeth is going to seem like a psychopath or Hamlet like a
wimp - but somehow, with these white guys, the issue of
misinterpretation doesn't come up.
It's the good-hearted, clear-eyed Jimmy who resolves the issue to
everyone's satisfaction. Jimmy is a great character - good without being
cloying - and Fortune is wonderful in the role, expansive and generous.
Yes, Jimmy is a bit too good to be true, and yes, the characters who
argue the issues are almost too well-intentioned to believe in - but
there's nothing false about Jennings's commitment to working things
out. Maybe you could call her naive, but it's a militant naivete,
innocence with attitude. There's been a lot of blathering about a need
for a dialogue between the races - Jennings has actually written one.
Playing Juliet/Casting Othello, by Caleen Sinnette Jennings. Directed by
Lisa Rose Middleton. Set, David Evans Morris; lights, Dan Covey;
costumes, Howard Vincent Kurtz; sound, Mike Savenelli. A Source Theatre
and Folger Shakespeare Library Production at the Folger Elizabethan
Stage, through Feb. 1. Call 202/544-7077.
(c) Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company