Race is an issue in this 'Othello'

It was "a daft idea," Tina Packer admits. With just 10 days of rehearsal at the end of the summer season, using actors who were already performing in other shows, Shakespeare & Company would present "Othello" in not one but two versions: First, as today's audiences would expect, an African-American would play the title role as the African general, with a white actor playing Iago, the schemer who undoes him. At the next performance, the actors would reverse their roles: How would a white Othello and a black Iago change the play?

Swapping roles has a long tradition in theater, in Shakespeare and beyond. In 2000, for example, two rising young American actors, John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman, triumphed on Broadway by alternating in the roles of two quite different brothers in Sam Shepard's play "True West." In 1997 white actor Patrick Stewart played Othello onstage surrounded by black actors, a kind of reverse version of the play. But to the knowledge of Ms. Packer, the founder and artistic director of Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass., this would be the first time that actors of different races alternated between the characters of Othello and Iago. The experiment would be a provocative way to explore racial themes.

Then, purely by accident, the production became even more ambitious. It soon became apparent that asking the actors to learn two major roles - two of the longest in all of Shakespeare - in such a short time was impractical. Though publicity materials had been sent out and tickets sold, a change was made: The actors would still swap roles, but within a single performance, each doing several scenes as either Othello or Iago, sometimes performing a scene twice to see how each actor would handle it.

In the end the five public performances, which concluded last Sunday, left both audience and actors with some conclusions - both expected and unexpected - and even more questions.

Jonathan Epstein, a white actor, says he found audiences reacted differently when he talked about slavery as Othello than when his counterpart did.

"It's powerful both ways," Mr. Epstein says, "but it's really different." That's because American audiences naturally attach their nation's racial history to the play, says Packer, a Shakespeare scholar who was born in Britain and received her dramatic training there. Shakespeare was talking about slavery in a broad sense, in a world where people of many races were enslaved for a variety of reasons, including being captured in war.

"Shakespeare was writing about one form of slavery," she says. "In America, we still have this huge thing about slavery still in our midst."

The other Othello-Iago, African-American actor Tony Molina, says when the word "slave" appears in the text it has a different meaning for him. "I have a different past, a different emotional memory," he says. When Othello is described as having "thick lips" and as an "old black ram" "that still never gets easy to listen to."

Mr. Molina, a native of New Orleans, has tackled racial themes on stage before. He participated in a hometown performance of a musical comedy called "Do the White Thing" - in which five black actors put on whiteface makeup - when former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke ran for governor of Louisiana in 1991. Racial attitudes were tense. "We got picketed. Bomb threats," he recalls.

While Molina, Epstein, and Packer thought they were exploring racism in the Bard's text, they were surprised by how issues of sexism emerged as well. Two of the three women in "Othello" are murdered and the other is jailed for a crime she didn't commit.

"I think it's the way the women are treated that makes us go 'whoa,' " Epstein says. "I mean they are just stomped on, silenced. There's something in [lago's] psychology that makes him need to drag women down." Not able to have Othello's loyal wife Desdemona for himself, Iago vows, "I'll turn her virtue into pitch."

That led Packer to a radical thought about another taboo that could be broken. Both Cassio, Othello's loyal lieutenant, and Desdemona are victimized by Iago, but they suffer much different fates: Cassio is reinstated to a high position; Desdemona is smothered to death by Othello, who wrongly believes her to have been unfaithful. "If I were working on it again, I would have Desdemona and Cassio exchange roles," Packer says. "I would cast a man who could play Desdemona and a woman who could play Cassio.... Maybe [then] the whole sexism thing would show up more clearly."

Othello has been a plum part for black actors looking for a lead role (Laurence Fishburne was the latest black actor to play The Moor onscreen in 1995). Tackling the iconic role was a challenge for Epstein, who is Jewish. The actor had been interested in playing Othello as an Arab, so he listened to Radio Tripoli in Libya all summer to perfect a North African accent.

Despite the lack of rehearsal (a prompter sat onstage in case he was needed) the actors found that swapping parts drew them closer to both of the roles - and each other. Epstein recalls a performance where "the synchromesh failed" and the actors found the lines they were saying were out of sync with each other. Because of the close relationship they had built ("I could probably just look into his eyes and find my lines," Molina says) they quickly got back on track. And because the actors inhabited both roles, Epstein adds, they weren't tempted to try to outdo each other but instead worked as a team.

"Our relationship was such that we really were setting each other up to look better," Epstein says.

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