The Mask of Blackness: The Arabian Shakespeare Festival’s OTHELLO reexamines Moorishness.
November 15, 2014 § 2 Comments
Otherness comes in many flavors
Since the extinction of the practice of white actors performing (and stereotyping) the title role of Othello in blackface, the play – at least in America – has featured actors of color and become a vehicle for examining black/white race relations. Because that is a necessary, and still unresolved, conversation it has been a highly successful strategy for rediscovering the relevance of the play.
What got lost in that transition is the possibility that Shakespeare was dramatizing otherness and ethnicity, but from a different perspective than Americans are imposing on it because of our current cultural complications: Othello is identified as a Moor, a word more closely associated in the Elizabethan era with those of Arabian descent than with peoples from sub-Saharan Africa. At about the time Shakespeare was writing the play, in fact, Elizabeth was receiving a famous embassy from the Barbary States. The ambassador, who manners and dress captivated London, took time to have his portrait painted.
The San Francisco-based Arabian Shakespeare Festival is now producing the play in a version which, unsurprisingly given its mission, opens the conversation about the Anglo/Arab implications of the play. The eight-person cast, led by Armando McClain, is mostly composed of accomplished regulars with various troupes in the active Bay Area Shakespeare scene.
The company is an emerging group, still producing on a shoe-string – albeit in an Equity approved project. Performing currently in the Royce Gallery’s intimate space, (the production will later tour to the United Arab Emerates, I think) the set is a modern adaptation of an Elizabethan open stage, cleverly incorporating two large support pillars into the downstage location similarly occupied in the Globe. The scenery, by Janny Cote, consists of a few sliding cubes and a couple of curtains. (These were hung from an incongruously omnipresent palm-ish tree, center stage, which may allude to the symbol of the desert tribes, but because it lacked any direct purpose was – at least to me – confusing.) Joanne Martin’s costumes were suits and uniforms for the male characters, dresses with prominently featured head scarves for the women. The time and place was the modern Middle East.
Performing in an American/Arabian Context
Kevin Hammond’s direction is understated, and as far as creating visually interesting groupings of the actors, essentially absent. The production, therefore, hangs on the performance of the actors, and on the inescapable contemporary implications arising from the company’s American/Arabian context.
On the performance front, the production is an unmitigated treat. In almost any production McClain’s beautiful vocal production and outstanding diction would stand out, but Teddy Spencer as Iago, Jennifer Le Blanc as Desdemona and Artistic Director William J. Brown III as Roderigo easily kept pace. This was far and away the best-spoken production I have recently experienced. For those who go to hear a Shakespeare play, this is what you dream about. The intelligence of the readings, the clarity of thought, and the easy audibility made this production as accessible as any contemporary play. There was never a moment I felt in doubt about what had been said or what was meant.
Spencer’s Iago is especially rewarding. He is a meticulous actor. I previously admired his performance as Orlando in Marin Shakespeare’s As You Like It for its extraordinary clarity, but his Iago is on another plane altogether. The steps by which his plot unfolds, exceeding even his expectations, are so carefully executed that you can feel him thinking in front of you. His Iago is colder than is currently fashionable, which is interesting in the context of Red State America’s xenophobia – he feels no need to seduce us into agreeing with him. Although Spencer is capable of incredible charisma on stage, he does not seek to charm us in this role. Instead, he steadily implicates us in his plot with an expectation that we will share his hatred of the outsider – which is chilling.
Le Blanc is very well known in the Bay Area. Her Rosie-the-riveter-inspired Kate in Taming of the Shrew at Livermore Shakes (opposite McClain as Petruchio) was a powerhouse performance. She is an unusual Desdemona because she is anything but delicate, or helpless. She is a strong actress, and it infuses her characters. Her Desdemona’s fate forces us to think about the issues of women’s rights both domestically and internationally because she is not passively complicit in it. She fights right to the end.
Perhaps the single best performance in the play is Brown’s wonderfully inept Roderigo, whom Iago dupes financially and ultimately murders. From the opening moments he is in over his head, but Brown’s embodiment of his bewilderment, fear, and pliability is a tour de force. It is exceptionally difficult to play weak characters memorably, but Brown’s Roderigo is the best I have ever seen.
Annamarie MacLeod rounds out the principals as Emilia, Desdemona’s servant and Iago’s estranged wife. Emilia has one of the most memorable monologues in Shakespeare, rationalizing why women might cheat on their cheating husbands, but MacLeod delivered it with a vulnerability and yearning for her lost husband that I have never previously seen.
The supporting cast included Malcolm Rodgers, Aaron Kitchin and Sofia Ahmad all of whom had some lovely moments.
A Fresh Context
Conceptually this is not an aggressive production. While the play itself focuses attention on Othello’s outsider status, the implications of the Arabian context in our current climate (where Arab-Americans can be subjected to intense hostility no matter what their religious beliefs or degree of assimilation) unfold subtly and slowly. I, at least, have seen the play so often filtered through the lens of the African-American experience that it took a while to realize exactly how this production was filtered through the American-Arabian lens instead. (There is neither denigration or dismissal of the former in this production, it is simply seen – unusually for our time – through the latter.)
Nonetheless, it gives the play a different feel and focus. For example, near the end of the play Othello receives word that he has been reposted, creating an urgency in his mind to deal with his (in his belief) unfaithful wife before the opportunity passes him by. He might have dealt with things more slowly and rationally if he were not being transferred the next day. And to where? I never really paid attention before, that his transfer is to Mauritania, from which the word for his ethnicity, Moor, is derived. Venice is rewarding his outstanding service by exiling him to a remote outpost where he will “fit in” now that they no longer need him.
Or this: Desdemona introduces the prophetic “willow song” by telling us that her mother’s maid sang it on the night she died. The maid’s name was Barbary – she was Moorish from the Barbary Coast. The number of references to Arabian matters and frameworks is astonishingly high once they are highlighted by design or by context.
Of course, throughout the play many characters (including Othello, himself) also comment on his blackness. This can be understood symbolically, but it has been a long time since I saw an Othello who was not also very dark skinned, so I have hear these references literally instead. (The last Othello I saw who was not very dark skinned was probably Patrick Stewart in a famous “photo-reversed” production for the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. in the mid ’90s where everyone else in the cast was African-American.)
I have no idea how Armando McClain self-identifies ethnically, (nor do I think he – or any actor – has any obligation to clarify such matters) but in this production he reads more bronze than black. In this case, that helped me to hear the production as emphasizing the metaphor, the “mask” if you will, of blackness instead of the literalness so often associated with Othello’s and others’ statements. It was useful and interesting to think freshly about the association of darkness with malignancy and the damage done by such connotations.
This is a fascinating and original production of a play which has grown somewhat interpretively stale in the repertoire, and worth the time and effort of anyone that wants to see and hear it with fresh appreciation. It has a short run, and a limited number of seats, so go while the opportunity is available!
Arabian Shakespeare Festival at the Royce Gallery
Nov. 14, 2014