The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, like many of William Shakespeare’s plays, can be found on stages across the world. This blog is about Othello’s global presence, meaning how Othello the person can be interpreted as a character that can be found reinterpreted in performance in various countries. Highlighting moments in Othello’s long production history reveal persistent questions surrounding its staging as well as how Othello is relevant to the U.S. in 2021.
Some stagings in Othello’s global production history reveal the discussions around who can play Othello in different contexts. In 1987, the Market Theatre used the play as a vehicle to stage a protest in support of the anti-apartheid movement. In the 1980s in Pennsylvania, Kabuki Othello by Karen Sunde adapted Shakespeare’s text, setting the story in the 16th century and centering it around Othello as an Ainu—a Caucasian native—and war hero in Japan. Retelling Othello to respond to the cultural contexts in which it is staged presents questions about who in what context can play Othello. Amongst the most well-known Othello performers is Ira Aldridge, a renowned 19th-century actor who became the first Black man to act on stage as Othello. In the context of the United States at the time, Aldridge was barred from performing in many venues and so headed to Europe to make his living as an actor. Aldridge could not play Othello in the racially tense context of the U.S., and while in Europe, Aldridge created a mythology around himself, claiming to be an African prince. This declaration was a keen approach that recognized and took advantage of the audience’s and theatre managers’ interests in exoticism. The fact that this mythology that Aldridge crafted around himself became an effective method to increase his mystique and lure in audiences is a testament to expectations and “requirements” of who is deemed appropriate to play Othello in the European and British 19th-century context.
An integral component to the text is that Othello can be reinterpreted so that no matter the new contexts it is placed in, its central questions remain. The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice has often been grounded in place and time, but the text can be translated to different racial relations and subtexts, such as how the Kabuki production probed similar themes of racial exclusion but in a Japanese context. The play can be, and often is, used politically, like Market Theatre’s apartheid-era production that used the production as an exploration of racial relations and love across racial divides. The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice is a vehicle for retelling a story interrogating global problems, such as systemic racism, and finding new layers of meaning activated by the context in which it is staged. When the play is adapted in different places, it grows to encapsulate context-specific meaning while also often preserving complex gender and race power dynamics.
When the play is adapted in different places, it grows to encapsulate context-specific meaning while also often preserving complex gender and race power dynamics.
Staging Othello presents an opportunity for interrogating not only the text’s themes but also the society it is produced in. As Abigail Henkin, Assistant Director and Dramaturg Associate of Court’s The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, said in a Zoom interview, “Every country’s legacy affects how this play is staged and interpreted.” In the context of the U.S. in 2020 and post-2020, Court’s production features a team of creatives whose thought process is influenced by George Floyd and recent Black Lives Matter protests. The core values of Court’s telling are molded by contemporary events as everyone involved in the production was shaped by them. Awareness of systems of violence remains at the forefront of their thinking and fuels the interpretive journey of finding and recognizing every character’s tragedy.
The post-2020 context activates layers of meaning in the play’s telling and confronts audiences with questions on how such meaning has bearing in their own existence as individuals operating in a society’s harmful cycles of violence. Henkin notes that Court’s team “always wanted to do a production that was focused on Othello as Othello, to appreciate Black experience and perspectives, and to make sure we were listening to Black production members and cast members.” The team, conscious about the depiction of violence against people of color, approached the staging with an acute awareness of what it means to show that kind of violence and constructed its visual storytelling in a way that is intended to offer some possibility for moving forward rather than portraying violence for violence’s sake.
Henkin also notes that Othello‘s complex theatrical history is a testament to how this play’s performance legacy tracks how white America has talked about Blackness over time and what white America has traditionally allowed for and expected of Black actors. When asked about pivotal moments in understanding how Court’s telling contributes to a global legacy of the play’s stagings, Henkin responds that it is important to recognize “how informative casting can be in this production.” She goes on to say that “part of Court’s production is bringing each actor’s background and personal history in their performance and making sure to really incorporate each actor’s lived experiences as they begin to create their characters.”
While Henkin reflects on what this production of The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice means in the post-2020 U.S., for her, it is vital to approach this play in a way that “prioritizes Othello, centers the Black experience, and features a diverse cast.” She states that the “idea of systems that are violent to Black men and how Black men respond to those systems feels pertinent. This production is grounded in a place of real humanity that shows each of these people not as caricatures but as human beings starting from a place of love.”
Both Othello the play and the character have a complicated history of staging in the U.S. and across the globe. As the world reckons with violent legacies of systemic racism, Court’s telling aims to present a path forward of productive reflection on tragic social structures.