Court Theatre


Free Street Theater

Poor Iago. Here he is, a white racist in a once-all-white society that now accepts blacks–indeed, gives them special privileges. A society that upholds a black man’s claim to a white wife over her father’s protest that interracial marriage is “against all rules of nature.” A society that not only allows a black man to rise to military leadership but keeps a good white man like Iago lower on the ladder–and gives a helping hand to other blacks.

Other blacks? OK, so there are no other blacks in Othello–not as it was written. In 1604, when Shakespeare’s tragedy was first performed, one African was plenty, given the English government’s recent policy of deporting the “Negars and Blackamores which [had] crept into this realm.” Othello is English drama’s first sympathetic black character, and Shakespeare deliberately emphasizes both the blackness and the nobility of his hero, a Moorish mercenary in the service of Venice. By making Othello a unique member of this community, Shakespeare underscores the vulnerability that leaves him susceptible to Iago’s suggestions that his bride, Desdemona, is unfaithful, driving him to kill her and then commit suicide.

Court Theatre’s production of the play changes that. Also black in Eric Simonson’s staging is Cassio, the soldier recently appointed Othello’s chief aide–and the man Othello unjustly suspects is Desdemona’s lover.

Just another case of color-blind casting? Not at all. Simonson’s strategy is partly pragmatic: Ramon Melindez Moses, the fine young actor who played Gethin Price in Court’s Comedians last season, makes a reliable understudy for Harry J. Lennix’s Othello. But of primary importance, an African Cassio underscores the sensitivity of Othello’s position. Almost any black who has risen to power in a white-dominated world is sensitive about the behavior of other blacks; so the disgraceful brawl into which Cassio is lured by Iago adds a layer of shame to Othello’s anger.

And Iago’s malevolence, traditionally misunderstood as motiveless, in fact has one of the most basic of motivations: racial hatred. His racism is amplified by other factors: Iago is angry that Othello has promoted Cassio rather than him (what is this, a goddamn quota system?); he lusts after Othello’s white wife; and he suspects his own wife, Emilia, of having slept with Othello. But these elements have much more force when linked to the basic fact that Iago hates blacks; how galling for him to think he’s shared his woman with his African superior.

Having clarified Iago’s motives, Simonson and the resourceful actor Steve Pickering shape the character as both a tough old army hawk and an almost superhuman morality-play symbol of vice–a white devil in every sense. With a snap of his fingers, Pickering’s vigorously virulent Iago can change the lighting of a scene, refocusing it on himself so he can deliver his soliloquies not as internal monologues but as direct addresses to the audience. Presuming the viewers’ sympathy, he doesn’t just confide his plans to us, he crows about them. He doesn’t disguise his contempt for the “black ram” he’s set out to destroy; when he quotes Othello, he mocks the Moor by affecting a darky dialect.

Which is just the opposite of how Othello actually talks. Lennix’s simultaneously husky- and honey-voiced delivery emphasizes the mournful mellifluousness of the Moor’s poetry, expressing the man’s intelligence and spiritual fineness. That makes his corruption by jealousy and distrust all the more pitiful; but Lennix’s Gielgudian musicality and polite bearing neglect the character’s power and sexuality, making the climax pathetic but not cathartic.

This is in keeping with the low-key nature of Simonson’s staging, which is far more convincing when dealing in words than in action. (A single martial-arts display, choreographed by Ned Mochel, seems thrown in out of a sense of duty.) The final scene, in which everyone stands around respectfully while Othello stabs himself, is the most memorable example of the show’s general physical slouchiness.

A good part of the problem is Gintara Kizys’s pretty but simpy Desdemona, too passive to be believed; as the story heads toward her death, she should emerge as a figure of power while Iago recedes, but the imbalanced energy of the two actors here creates a sense of inertia rather than inevitability, though Kate Goehring’s fiery Emilia offers welcome relief. Except for the high-stakes humor and horror Bruce Orendorf brings to Iago’s foil Roderigo, the supporting cast is strangely drab and ill suited to the heightened language.

But despite its flaws, Simonson’s Othello offers a credible and unusual perspective on the tragedy. John Musial’s set, contrasting the clean simplicity of the Venetian court with the stark ruins of battle-torn Cyprus, suggests the play’s warring currents; Evan Chen’s incidental score, combining lush synthesizer tonalities and pulsing live drumming, provides a much-needed sense of suspense. And Lennix’s serious and resonant Othello and Pickering’s imaginative, energetic Iago movingly embody the destructive impulses of racial hate and sexual mistrust that shape this always powerful, remarkably relevant script.

One of Lennix’s best-remembered roles in Chicago was Malcolm X in Jeff Stetson’s The Meeting, which explored competing viewpoints in African American politics–nonviolence versus self-defense, integration versus black nationalism, Christianity versus Islam–through a fictitious encounter between Malcolm and Martin Luther King Jr. Now Los Angeles-based actor Damone Paul Jackson takes on the role in a different play, Malcolm X: Reminiscences of a Revolutionary, bringing commitment, conviction, and passion to this one-man show playing a brief engagement at the Free Street Theater.

Presently receiving a burst of new attention as a result of Spike Lee’s forthcoming film, Malcolm remains a bitterly controversial figure–just as the militant stance he asserted continues to stir anxiety when it’s promoted by such contemporary figures as Sister Souljah. The rap singer’s comment following the Los Angeles riots last May–that “if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?”–echoes Malcolm’s notorious assertion that the murder of President Kennedy was a “case of chickens coming home to roost.” Both were making the point that violence only seems to be important when it victimizes whites, while epidemic black-on-black violence is disregarded; both were also heeding Frederick Douglass’s belief that “scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed” to express African American rage–“biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm and stern rebuke.”

There’s plenty of ridicule, reproach, and rebuke in Malcolm X, written and directed by Frank G. Greenwood. Malcolm aims much of the scorn at himself–who wouldn’t, if given the gift of immortal hindsight? Making no bones about it, Greenwood has Malcolm returning from the grave to discuss his life and make one more trip around his old stomping grounds, where the problems of crime, drugs, alcoholism, black-on-black violence, and general hopelessness are worse now than when he fought them in the 1950s and ’60s. Addressing us directly, Malcolm recalls crucial events that twisted him into a white hater–the burning of his childhood home in Michigan, his father’s suspicious death, his contemptuous treatment by a high school guidance counselor–as well as his evolution from criminal and drug addict to Black Muslim spokesman to born-again Islamic fundamentalist following a trip to Mecca shortly before his 1965 assassination by Muslim rivals.

A chameleonic artist, Jackson effectively employs a few well-chosen shifts in posture and vocal inflection to play Malcolm at various times: at five, shivering with palpable terror while white firemen laugh at his burning home; shucking and trucking his way through a Selective Service interview with a strung-out outrageousness calculated to avoid the draft; Malcolm in jail, ruining his eyes as he thirstily reads in the dim light of his cell; Malcolm dismissing his wife’s pleas that he pay more attention to his family and less to the movement (then burning with retrospective guilt); Malcolm as fiery public speaker and gentle street missionary, urging blacks to take control of their lives and give up waiting for salvation from ineffectual “leaders.”

Obviously respectful of his subject, Jackson nonetheless doesn’t shy away from Malcolm’s flaws: the boyish search for direction and dignity that led him to trust duplicitous leaders; the inattention to his family; the creeping paranoia and edgy abrasiveness that reflected the inevitability of his murder–and helped to ensure it. The result is a passionate, painful, yet often funny production that rings true as Malcolm’s self-portrait and as a historical piece that both evokes a turbulent era of racial politics and illuminates our own very different yet troublingly similar time.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lisa Ebright.