Writings of the general word's body

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Talking 'Othello' with Teju Cole

I had a bit of dialogue with writer Teju Cole on his blog recently, about a posting he did on Shakespeare's Othello. How does a non-white actor play Othello without reinforcing the play's inherent racial stereotyping (I almost typed 'racial profiling', which is another kettle of fish entirely!).

Teju's blog is intelligent and thought provoking without stuffiness or posturing. Here's his
post on Othello. Some of our exchange, is excerpted below, with Teju's permission.

MW: I have read Kwame Kwei-Armah's & Hugh Quarshie (who has played Othello before, I believe)'s thoughts on this matter before. Reminds me of a review I wrote of a production of Othello at the Trafalgar Studios in London back in 2004 in which I also touched on Quarshie's essay (I'll see if I can dig out my review). The production starrred Nsello Maake Ka Ncube as Othello; see a poem I wrote about meeting his eyes during the performance, as one of only 2 0r 3 black people in an audience of 300 or 400.

The saving grace, if you could call it that, was that Anthony Sher's Iago was a Heil Hitler type sniggering over-the-top character you cannot identify with at all, whatever your race; problem is, Shakepeare intended that you dislike Iago, so nothing really new there. The setting was moved to something like second World War Venice; a few of the other minor characters were played by blacks actors. Still, this overiding question of race was overwhelming in the production, for me. And if you were to cut out stuff like: "These moors are changeable in their wills" or references to the "black ram tupping your white ewe" - you would not have the play Othello. I actually love this play, for the very reason that it is not just a great tragedy, but also because it discomfits me and discomfits the person next to me.

What I feel is that, the racial connotations of Othello changes depending on (1) where it is staged; (2) the racial composition of the actors; and (3) the composition of the audience. If you had a production of Othello in Lagos with Nigerian actors playing to a Nigerian audience, the emphasis on character rather than race as suggested by Quarshie, would come to the fore. Any other way, it remains problematic. And you can't have a white (un-blacked out) actor play him because Othello is necessarily black ("Happily, for I am black").

A black actor playing Othello in a largely white cast to a largely white audience may unwittingly validate racial stereotypes. But I am of the view that it is a darn sight better than Laurence Olivier "blacking up" to play Othello, something that was once the norm. And since Shakespeare himself wrote the part for a white actor, the very notion of a black actor taking over the role is a subversion of sorts, and that pleases me. And when we think about it, some great black cultural icons (Paul Robeson, no less) have played Othello. Quarshie himself shows from his essay that he had ruminated so much about the role that (though I never saw the production that featured him) one cannot doubt that he approached the part with a great sense of responsibility. What is needed, are talented black actors with the presence of mind and self awareness to help them transcend the stereotypes.

We must carry on seeing productions of Othello, because I see shades of the moor and the societal factors that made and broke him, all around us everyday. Quarshie's examples of Dodi Fayed and O J Simpson (him especially; who lived in a white world only to embrace his blackness on a rap for the gruesome murder of his wife, someone that was a consuming passion to him - poor Nicole, God rest her) were on the ball, and I noted this in my review. I added to Quarshie's list a black boxer (I hesitate to name him still) who wasn't such a good pugilist but was adored by the British public because he was (maybe still is) the kind of black man that made whites comfortable, reinforced their sense of racial superiority. He wasn't clever, he knew his place, he made black people cringe in their seats (Caribbean or African, I am yet to meet a black person who was proud of this guy even in his glory days). The boxer was greatly rewarded for his modest talents when better black British boxers didn't fare so well. Crucially, he had a white wife. Since he's been divorced, the facade seems to have been blown and the boxer is now just a pathetic loser, though rich. So there you have it.

Othello is all around us. Long live the play, "flawed" though it is.

~ * ~ * ~

TC: Though I'd assent to some judicious editing of the play's text (it's controversial but, like Quarshie, I don't believe in being enslaved to the text--and how many people do full length Hamlets anyway?), I also hav to say a black actor in the troubling role is a damn sight better than Lord Buttermelt done up in blackface.

Blackface is its own thing, full of rotten history, impermissible to anyone except, perhaps, to teenage Japanese girls who are so far off the kooky scale they aren't any of our business.

Your poem of Nsello reminds me, Molara, of one time I went to see Seamus Heaney give a talk in New York. The audience was large, but only two of us had the touch of the tar-brush, just me and another, older, man.

Five minutes before the event started, I was in my seat. The room was almost full. That was when two white women walked across the room and said to me, "Could you please do something about the air-conditioning." Wit failed. And all I could say in response was a prosaic, "I'm here for the poems, too" and thank the gods these fools hadn't approached Derek Walcott instead.

~ * ~ * ~

MW: "Could you please do something about the air-conditioning"?!

What a cheek! I'd have to say they're a lot more polite and reserved in England, to say such.
Derek Walcott, ehn? You were in esteemed company, mai broda.

An English colleague who worships black Jazz gods told me he's noticed some serene sense of joy that shows upon the bearing of black jazz musicians when they spot their kind in the crowd during concerts at the Queen Elizabeth Hall or such places, since the audience is mostly white for these shows. I admire white audiences for turning up purely for the love of the arts (they turn up for Malian & Yoruba musicians too and clearly enjoy themselves, even as they don't understand the lyrics). There's been a slight increase in black attendance for Nigerian/African artists in recent years - but I remain baffled as to why blacks generally stay away.

As someone who goes to art events a lot here in London, one regularly feels like an endangered specie in the audience, especially in the theatre (must be even worse at the opera, though I must confess I'm as guilty as the next woman when it comes to opera!). Your skin colour suddenly becomes so magnified. You wear it loose on you, like an oversized cross. And it's so lonely. Then think how it is for the black player who can't find anyone he/she can identify with in the audience.

Much as any player loves to play to all of God's children, it helps sometimes if you can get that specific identification allowed by your kind. That was what happened when Nsello saw me in that audience. The loneliness of the black in Elizabethan period Venice was in that theatre filled with white people in 2004. I felt some racial angst. It wasn't just about Othello anymore; it was about me too.

That's what I love about theatre. The danger.

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