`Othello' With a Twist

A mix of black cast members reveals different perspectives on the Bard's tragedy. THEATER

SHAKESPEARE'S play ``Othello'' takes on different colors in the powerful production at the Folger's Shakespeare Theatre here through Jan. 27. In this showcase for non-traditional casting, Othello the Moor of Venice, is black, but his treacherous friend Iago, traditionally played by a white actor, is also black, and so is Iago's wife. The play's black director, Harold Scott, has mounted a highly innovative and popular production; it is playing to standing-room-only audiences here and drawing a higher proportion of blacks in the audience than can usually be seen in the city's theaters.

This ``Othello'' takes on different shadings in meaning because the casting changes the balance of Shakespeare's play: No longer is Iago the channel for whatever racial prejudice and malice have been invested in him over the centuries as the symbolic bigot who revenges himself on Othello.

In this production, since Iago too is black, the cargo of hatred which Iago carries becomes simply a loathing for his general, a competitive rage against someone, not for his differentness, but for his sameness. It also subtly shifts the relationship between between the white Desdemona and Iago's wife, Emilia.

Audiences may decide for themselves whether the weight of Shakespeare's play is unbalanced by these untraditional casting changes. Certainly they affect Shakespeare's original meaning more significantly than other admirable non-traditional casting done at the Folger recently: the superb black actress Franchelle Stewart Dorn, for instance, as a formidable Lady Macbeth; the integrated supporting cast of ``Romeo and Juliet''; and others.

Director Scott says that casting a black Iago ``...was an idea I came up with in playing Othello 20 years ago. Playing with a white Iago, I felt it was so difficult for me to buy the temptation scene (Act three, scene three) in which Othello is persuaded by Iago that Desdemona has betrayed him. I had difficulty accepting this and not feeling stupid. I decided over the last 20 years that it's easier for anyone to accept if there's a bonding between the two of them. It would make acceptance of that information more credible. Their coming from similar cultural circumstances, being Moors, having the same morality, the same attitude toward Venetian society, toward women. That would make it much easier, more credible to trust and believe what Iago said....

``When I directed `Othello' at Stage West 10 years ago, I attempted to cast it with a 28-year-old black Iago, but it didn't work. I couldn't find the right one. But I did get to cast a 28-year-old white Iago, so I got the age differential right; Othello is in early middle age, so the father-son mentor-student relationship is much richer, makes trust more credible, makes the betrayal more heinous....''

Scott does not believe that casting a black Iago obscures the racial prejudice that is part of the heart of Othello's tragedy.

``I always felt that the real prejudice in the play comes from Brabantio [Desdemona's father, a senator.] Iago is simply capitalizing on what he has heard. In the Senate scene he goes into a racial diatribe. But it was not uncommon in the Renaissance for a Moor to marry a Venetian women. Even the Doge says `Your son-in-law is far more fair than black.' There is nothing in Shakespeare that I feel I'm violating, no view that Iago is racist....''

Scott directed ``Raisin in the Sun'' at Kennedy Center and on PBS; ``Les Blancs'' at Arena Stage; ``Paul Robeson'' on Broadway with Avery Brooks, among other productions. He is currently director of the Rutgers Shakespeare Company and is head of the M.F.A directing program at Rutgers University. He is also a member of the Non-Traditional Casting Project and of the NEA Professional Theater Panel.

He certainly begins his exceptional production of ``Othello'' in an imaginative way. Before Shakespeare's words begin, with Iago telling Brabantio, ``an old black ram is tupping with your white ewe,'' Scott has cleverly added a visual overture. The play opens with the Renaissance set in half-light, a spotlight on the bridal bed as Desdemona and Othello glide toward it and then fall into each others' arms. The stage goes black; then act one, scene one begins on a street in Venice.

The bed becomes a symbol of their love, of Othello's obsessive jealousy stirred up by Iago's lies about Desdemona's unfaithfulness, and of the fateful final scene in which Othello after his murderous rage says ``I kiss'd thee, ere I kill'd thee.'' When I asked Scott about this central symbol which comes full circle in this production, he said, ``The marriage bed, how ironic, becomes the funeral bed, and also how tragic.''

This production of ``Othello'' is brilliant, impassioned, and provocative. Its Othello is Avery Brooks, star of the former ABC television series ``A Man Called Hawk: Spenser for Hire,'' who also has a rich theater background. His performance as Othello has received critical acclaim, but he was sidelined for several performances by an auto accident.

In the performance I saw, his stand-by Raphael Nash played this demanding role. Nash was wonderful, a magnificent-looking Othello full of fire and authority. But he also brought tenderness and tempestuousness to the scenes with Desdemona. Jordan Baker gave a luminous performance as Desdemona, a girl-woman in love with her man and brimming with life.

Andr'e Braugher's smiling Iago emerges slowly as the villain, his malevolence coming gradually to the boil and then stunning us with its force. Sometimes he prowls the stage like a black panther, plotting the revenge he'll spring on Othello. Occasionally he seems out of sync with the period of the play, slipping into a contemporary characterization. The rest of the cast is professional and impressive.

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