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Shakespeare’s controversial Othello gets a close look from actors, students and a playwright

A production of Othello
Shehal Joseph
A production of Othello

Othello has long been one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays — the story of a person of color, told by a white man in Elizabethan England. Now it’s getting a fresh look at Sacred Heart University, under the guidance of an acclaimed playwright.

It’s the story of a Moorish general, his wife Desdemona and the villainous Iago. (Of course, it ends in tragedy.)

Shakespeare didn’t make Othello’s race fully clear — the character may have been from Spain or the Middle East. But the role is usually played as Black — James Earl Jones and Laurence Fishburne have both had the part. And it was once common for white actors to play it in blackface — even great actors like Laurence Olivier.

Othello is still controversial. A few months ago, a University of Michigan professor showed students a clip of Olivier’s performance. Students complained, and the university announced the teacher would no longer teach the class.

“There are scholars, particularly Shakespeare and race scholars, who are espousing the play shouldn’t be performed anymore because the toxicity in it is too intractable,” said actor and playwright Keith Hamilton Cobb. “I’m not sure they’re wrong, but I’m not sure they’re right, either.”

Cobb is the director of the Untitled Othello Project at Sacred Heart University — a project that will explore the future of Othello in America.

“It is a project and not a production. ‘Director’ tends to default to the idea of the director of a play, and we’re not mounting a play … We do not have the tools as Americans to see past our privilege and our racial biases,” Cobb said.

Cobb has written a play about Othello, though — or, rather, about a Black actor’s relationship with the play. American Moor examines “the experience and perspective of Black men in America through the metaphor of William Shakespeare’s character, Othello,” according to its website.

Cobb described the story as one of “a middle-aged African American male auditioning for the role of Othello, opposite a much younger white director, who is trying to instruct him in the audition about how to play the Black eponymous hero.”

Cobb’s play argues that his character doesn’t need direction from a white director to play a Black character.

“A little white man is asking me if I have any questions about being a large Black man, enacting the role of a large Black man, in a famous Shakespeare play about a large Black man,” Cobb says in the play.

Cobb said a lot of rushed productions of Othello rely on lazy tropes and don’t represent the full richness of Shakespeare’s character.

“It is now time to interrogate that play more deeply and decide if any of that could work,” he said. “Might make a more empathetic character ... I am trying to find his truth, and by way of doing that, find his dignity.”

In Cobb’s project, actors will sit around a table and work slowly through the play, line by line, analyzing it in a process that’s called close reading in academia.

“Sacred Heart was the first institution to show up jumping in with both feet in allowing us a platform to begin this, what I call, a touring interrogation with actors,” Cobb said.

Sacred Heart University professor Emily Bryan said her students will explore why audiences like Shakespeare’s plays, even when they deal with unpleasant subject matter.

“The fact that the play does draw you in, that it is popular — there’s also Taming of the Shrew, and Merchant of Venice, which are popular and really toxic plays — and yet, when I teach Taming of the Shrew, students walk this line of loving it, absolutely loving it. You wonder why?”

The project has two weeks at Sacred Heart University, until December 10 — but Cobb said he makes no guarantees they’ll get through the play in that time.

“It might be that we get three lines in and something in that three lines triggers a discussion that needs to go on for three hours. That has to be okay. Nothing should be pushing this process forward any faster than it wants to go.”

Cobb said it’s important not to rush the process — something that often happens in the American theatrical world, where time is money.

“This is about ensemble working where every artist has a say about what this is,” he said. "What we’re giving them is the support to take your time, go deep, give your opinions and don’t be afraid that you’re wrong. Don’t be afraid that anybody will indict you or fire you for taking a direction. Let’s find this together.”

And through that, he hopes the project at Sacred Heart University will find new dimensions to not just Othello, but all the play’s characters.

Sacred Heart University is the licensee of WSHU Public Radio.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.