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Ten Thousand Things’ “Othello”

4 Nov

Raw Shakespeare or Post-Nothing
DSC08091(2)Photo courtesy Ten Thousand Things

There is something to the style of a Ten Thousand Things production- with the lights up, seated in a circle, with actors and audience in plain view- that is as much group therapy as it is theatre. The immediacy of text and action presented in the stripped down format enables the critical themes, the subjects that resonate across age, class and race, to take center stage without frivolous theatrical frills. It is through that clarity of vision that Ten Thousand Things makes it’s work matter to their audiences in prisons and shelters as well as to theatre-literate audiences. In tackling “Othello”, playing one more week at Open Book and then one week at the Minnesota Opera Center, co-directors Michelle Hensley (TTT Artistic Director) and Sonja Parks use a neatly streamlined text and a canny and impeccable cast to flesh out the themes of racism and sexism but also to dig deeper into the base motivations of jealousy and deception that are at the heart of all out tragedies.

As Othello, Ansa Akyea throws himself into the performance, all muscle and sweat that ends in tears. Akyea uses his stature to create a man whose fidelity to orders and desire for honesty make him susceptible corruption, posing an existential crisis- if lack of dishonesty makes it impossible to discern dishonesty then how is it possible to maintain honesty- and he is pushed all the way to the edge for it. What makes the push so harrowing is the delightfulness of Luverne Seifert’s Iago. Forget the banality of evil, as the saying goes, Seifert embodies the blitheness of evil. From one stomach-churning suggestion that his own wife has cuckolded him with Othello, Seifert’s Iago spins out plots as lightly as he were making plans for lunch, and it is on the strength of Seifert the actor that we believe Iago the actor, with multiple faces to present to each character. Tracey Malony as Desdemona provides a great foil to Akyea, as slim and light as he is large and dark, with her honesty full of delicate sweetness in counterbalance to his headstrong directness.

With those three at the core of the production, the major themes of jealousy and corruption are played out to their tragic ends, but it is in the canny casting of Christiana Clark, an African-American actress, in the roles of the Duke of Venice, Lodovico (an emissary of the Duke) and especially as Emilya, Iago’s wife, that the major question of race is engaged in “Othello”. In productions where Othello is the only black character on stage, the read on the racism of the play is a relatively simplistic one. Other performances has attempted to broaden and nuance the racism of “Othello” through non-traditional casting, most notably this summer’s co-production by the Public and the LAByrinth Theatre Company in New York directed by Peter Sellars. Hilton Als wrote in The New Yorker of that production;

“…Unavoidably…Othello must be black. By casting the light-skinned Latino actor John Ortiz-who could easily be Venetian- in the title role, Sellars says he has tried to shift the focus away from “racial hierarchies” in order to explore what the “realities and possibilities” of the play may be for “the Obama generation.” But would the play really mean less if Sellars had cast, say, Jeffrey Wright in the role? Does having a non-black Othello truly make you confront your own prejudices? Has Sellars unintentionally given in to the racism that sometimes infects the white-oriented theatrical avant-garde?”

In “the Obama generation” the blatant racism of Brabantio (Desdemona’s mother in this production, played by Kimberly Richardson in one of three roles) is a mix of antiquated, like “Colored Only” signs and virulent, but it is also easily identifiable as repulsive. It is obvious and the tack of Sellars to white-wash the cast of “Othello” is antithetical to the diversity of our times. So the casting of Clark enables a whole new body of questions, of which the most contentious are posed by relationship of Iago and Emilya. If Iago could marry a black woman and still cavalierly undercut Othello because of his supposed cuckoldry and use his race against him, have we made progress as a culture against the evils of racism? Or are those social issues so deeply tied to the human shortcomings of jealousy, dishonesty and mistrust that prejudice simply mutates instead of being stamped out? Those types of questions open a truly problematic read on the insidious sublimation of racial- and sexual- hierarchies in the realities and possibilities of contemporary life. All that it takes for Ten Thousand Things to double down on the relevance of Shakespeare to a modern and diverse audience to get down to the text and perform it in the open with a cast that reflects their audience- when you can see yourself on stage, theatre is working its magic.

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