Othello is usually viewed as “Shakespeare’s Race Play” and somewhat rightfully so—after all, the Bard almost never wrote Black characters. In our society race overshadows everything, so much so that much discourse around Othello tends to obstinately revolve around whether or not the play is “racist”—as if an inanimate object were able to take offense and require defense. So much of our artistic discourse around the work stagnates at this brackish, mosquito-ridden tide pool, swirling around on itself ad nauseum.
This limited perspective reveals our societal view of white as the default—that is, when a play is about a white man, it is a play about a man, his struggles, and all of life’s challenges. When it is about a Black man, the play is said to be about Blackness and race. Yet Othello is about so much more when one looks further than skin deep.
The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, now onstage at the Court Theatre, succeeds in finding humanity in its subject beyond his race. In short, it is the tragedy of a Black man who enters a white space, succeeds, and is targeted and destroyed. Though English in origin, it is a story as American as apple pie, and sadly as ubiquitous as apples—common and plentiful. The always outstanding actor Kelvin Roston Jr. commands the titular role with power and vulnerability, masterfully tracking Othello’s downfall as he commits the most cardinal sin a Black man in America can.
To quote the Reduced Shakespeare Company:
“Here’s the story of a brother
by the name of Othello.
He liked white women
and he liked green Jell-O.”
Jokes aside, Emmett Till (brutally murdered after being falsely accused of whistling at a white woman) reminds us that for many, even the appearance of a Black man being attracted to a white woman is highly political and dangerous. (Consider also that Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court ruling overturning state laws banning interracial marriages, was only decided in 1967.) Othello’s wife Desdemona is thoughtfully portrayed by Amanda Drinkall. When her father Brabantio (an appropriately rash and stern Sean Fortunato) predictably freaks out and gets hella racist, Desdemona serves up robust Tammy Wynette “Stand by Your Man” energy and is obstinately faithful until the bitter end.
The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice
Through 12/5: Wed-Thu 7:30 PM, Sat-Sun 2 and 7:30 PM; no shows Wed-Thu 11/24-11/25, Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis, 773-753-4472, courttheatre.org, $56-$76 (streaming option available, $35-$50).
Codirectors Charles Newell and Gabrielle Randle-Bent make the choice to center Othello in his own story, despite the text heavily highlighting Iago. Iago (a deliciously wicked yet multidimensional Timothy Edward Kane) is the villain and the main thrust, his crafty schemes manipulating the other characters like marionettes. When Iago feels he is passed over for a promotion, and is internally wounded when Othello marries his secret love, he goes on the attack—gaslighting Othello into destruction. The result of Iago’s machinations is an examination of misplaced loyalties and trust—who we trust and why.
Erin Kilmurray’s movement and intimacy design places trust in the viewers, staging fight scenes that transcend traditional representational choices around depictions of violence. In many cases, the lyrical and implied movement choices were far more intimate and devastating than many standard staged-combat scenes I have witnessed in similar works. John Culbert’s scenic design places trust in the storytelling by seating some viewers on the stage in swivel chairs, the action happening around them in every direction, including above on scaffolding.
The most important storytelling moments drew the audience’s attention without fail. While the onstage seating for part of the audience made the story more intimate, it also had the effect of placing audience members in the line of sight of each other, creating a level of self-awareness that occasionally pulled me out of moments I would otherwise be completely emotionally immersed in.
The sound and lighting design by Andre Pluess and Keith Parham, respectively, supported the work extremely well, cycling between stark and moody. An especially well-staged scene of wedding nuptials is emblematic of how well the entire team (production and cast) meshed to breathe new life into this musty work. That moment highlights the hilariously talented Darren Patin (aka Chicago drag queen Ari Gato) as Bianca, who then goes on to demonstrate his exceptional range later in the show. We stan a queen who can do both drama and comedy!
Newell and Randle-Bent’s direction highlights Othello’s misplaced trust in Iago, and the lack of trust he has failed to place in his new wife, repeatedly vocalizing that his own experience with her runs counter to Iago’s claims. Rather than allow his own certainty to lead him to questioning Iago’s motives, he turns away from his truth. A lack of trust in himself and an overreliance on the validation of others is what brings his downfall, allowing him to succumb to his worst demons of jealousy and anger.
While racism might provide the catalyst, it is ultimately Othello’s decision to spurn his wife and good friend Cassio (a sensitive and earnest Sheldon Brown). The decision to cast Cassio as Black suggests a commentary on the way trauma from white supremacy can be misdirected into intra-community violence. Watching Rolston Jr. navigate the triple-bind of racism, betrayal, and his own internal demons illuminates what a delicious role Othello can be for an actor, as he imbues one of Shakespeare’s few Black characters with the full breadth of humanity. To be clear, Court’s Othello does not “transcend” race, but instead fully humanizes a Black character beyond his skin.
The lack of trust in self is repeated in each character as they fail to listen to their intuition, and stumble blindly into a nightmare. Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel plays Emilia, Iago’s wife, with sensitivity, a woman on the verge of realizing her husband is not who she thought. Compared to Desdemona, her character is written more willfully and possesses more agency (despite the societal constraints of womanhood) and yet she balks. The entire cast is excellent, and one can tell they are truly immersed in and relishing the work.
The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice is a dynamically engaging, crisply edited, jarring production. Seasoned viewers of Shakespeare may find new appreciation for the work, and the uninitiated will find a compelling portal into the works of the Bard through this cautionary tale about frenemies and self-awareness.