African-American Shakespeare Company
While there are no American flags flying and no “U.S. Army” or “U.S. Navy” stitching on the military uniforms worn, the intentions of Director Carl Jordan could hardly be clearer. There is no way for him to camouflage that this opening production of the African-American Shakespeare Company’s twenty-fifth season of William Shakespeare’s Othello involves American troops stationed in yet another Middle Eastern country, this time Cyprus. The director ensures from the opening scene that this oft-produced tragic tale takes on the immediate relevance of headlines we are reading every day.
A second, brilliant decision in terms of casting by the director also makes this Othello as current as this morning’s Huffpost headline. While most productions of the classic only cast the Moor Othello himself as a man of color, Carl Jordan has somewhat removed race as the core difference between Othello and his compatriot soldiers. In this production, blacks and whites abound working, living, and even coupled together (e.g., Iago’s wife, Emilia, is black). In this director’s vision, when the most reviled of all Shakespeare’s villains, Iago, says point-blankly and unashamedly, “I hate the Moor,” we cannot help but draw comparisons to the online pictures and videos we see of everyday Americans (and even top leaders) showing their hate of those of not born in this country. Apart from the themes of jealousy and misjudgment that center on Othello himself, this African-American Shakespeare Company’s Othello is a stark, unsettling reflection of the doubts and mistrusts that can quickly multiply when a respected source like Iago begins to spread rumors and outright lies about “the other” among us – about that person who is a different nationality (in this case, African), has foreign speech patterns (Othello has a distinctly different accent), and show mannerisms that make him stand out from those who look and act like ‘us.’
What makes this Othello particularly startling is that Iago could be any one of a hundred people most of us in the audience knows. On the outside and at first meeting, he is nice-looking, wears a Zuckerberg-like hoodie, and is quick to buddy up to whomever he meets around the base – the kind of guy who grew up next door to the majority of today’s Americans. After all, everyone – and of course especially his superior officer, Othello — refers to Iago as “honest,” “good,” a man of “trust.”
But what also makes this Iago unfortunately so currently familiar is that he is quick to talk and spread rumors about the foreigner among them, this Moor. What sends chills down one’s spine is how time and again Michael Ray Wisely as Iago turns to address the audience directly in such a manner as if to say, “You understand … You know how these foreigners are among us.” He openly shares with us his ideas-in-the-making and finally explicitly tells us his demonic plan to take down Othello, not hiding any motive or detail of how he will convince Othello that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio (the lieutenant who was promoted over Iago). We can see that he thinks that naturally we too have the same dislike as he of this outsider Othello.
The assumptions Iago makes with his tone and looks — one almost expects him to wink at us to let us know he ‘knows’ we agree – rattles to the core and leads one to think of a certain president whose tweets and video clips make the same types of assumptions as he too often asserts criminals are infiltrating the U.S. through the Mexican border. Michael Ray Wisely is a modern-day, American Everyman who is fed up with those foreigners who are invading our institutions, making decisions to take jobs away from us, and who are even marrying our women. As such, he is scary and all too real.
And though there are frequent mentions of the script’s Venice and still plenty of early seventeenth century phrases and language amongst some updated phrases and four-letter epitaphs, peppering the story’s unveiling are also the sounds of overhead helicopters and jets, piped in snippets of a TV reporter, and the buzzers and bells of a modern military compound. Together, director and creative team continue to reinforce that this Othello is happening right now, all around us.
The military hero, Othello — who in this case has evidently immigrated from somewhere in Muslim Africa to rise to hero-status in the military – is charming in his exacting accent and manner, is well-spoken and clearly of exceptional intelligence, and is full of amiable confidence when we first meet him. L. Peter Callender provides few, if any, early hints of the emotional, mental, and psychological breakdown that is soon to occur. With his new bride, Desdemona, he is passionately and unashamedly demonstrative of his love for her, picking her up while repeatedly kissing her in front of his gathered troops. With his comrades, he is jovial and familiar as well as quick to joke and even to hug.
His eventual metamorphosis into a full-fledge monster is all the more horrific because Mr. Callender is able at first to make us believe that maybe this particular Othello will not be taken in by Iago’s outlandish insinuations and will in fact continue to love his beautiful, young bride who so clearly adores him. When he laughs off Iago’s initial insinuations of Desdemona’s infidelity, we hope that the “green-eyed monster” of jealousy will this time pass him by; but we have also just heard his Othello say with eerie prediction as his wife exits, “But I do love her, and when I am out of love, chaos will come again.”
When Othello does transform, rarely has there been any more violent outbursts by a physically scary Othello than the one on this stage. Mr. Callendar’s increasing bouts of rage and fury are shattering to behold. His rants become animal-like howls; his eyes almost pop out of his head; he beats his chest in one moment and collapses on the ground in the next – sometimes screaming his anger, sometimes just freezing his mouth open and in a look shocked and horrid. His entire being becomes so consumed with the jealous disease that Iago has infected within him that he shakes uncontrollably from head to toe; his voice shifts to that of a monster; and any sign of logical, rational thinking totally leaves him. His body literally shrinks, twists, and molds into wrinkled forms different from that the noble man we met just barely an hour prior. The performance is nothing short of magnificent and horrifying at the same time.
Surrounding these two who together march others towards a destiny of undeserved destruction are two wives and a comrade: Desdemona, Emilia, and Cassio. Desdemona (Isabel Siragusa) appears barely past her teen years and obviously dedicated to her new groom and heads-over-heals in love with him as a girl who has found her first love. She exudes a sense of innocence and naivite. She shows no hesitation to be open about her close friendship with Cassio and in fact does flirt a bit with him as any young woman might do with a friend who is much closer to her age than her graying husband. She is not about to stop pestering her husband in a loving, playful, but ever-persistent mode to reconsider a demotion he gives to Cassio (after a drunken brawl orchestrated by Iago on the lightweight drinker, Cassio). She also seems to miss all clues how much her childish bantering is upsetting her newly wed husband. As Othello’s suspicions become more intense and his anger begins to take over, Ms. Siragusa’s performance proportionately intensifies in multiple dimensions to a climax where she succumbs in shocked disbelief while still purporting her love for a husband who is about to kill her. The interpretation given to this Desdemona is somewhat disturbing in that she shows few signs of her own personhood and independence, but she also reminds us how easy it is for a young woman in our society to fall into the sway and obedience of an attractive, publicly renowned man who so dominates and powers over her. In the MeToo era, her Desdemona is a warning signal of how this seductive dominance can happen to almost anyone.
As Iago’s wife, Emilia (also a member of the military troop), Champagne Hughes is often initially in the background, watching intently but rarely saying much. She is, however, desperate to be noticed by her husband who seems to have a disdain for her, and she is most certainly one more person who is hugely naïve as she agrees to steal Desdemona’s handkerchief (a gift from Othello) in order to please her husband. When the true nature of her husband and his motives finally become known to her, the rage against him and Othello (and husbands in general) and the despair she feels for Desdemona add up to an astoundingly powerful performance for Ms. Hughes, her final fifteen or so minutes being a memorable highlight in an evening already full of incredible performances by her fellow actors.
As Cassio, Ariel Sandino is convincing as a nice, somewhat shy, and incredibly handsome guy any one would immediately like. That he is duped by Iago is easy to believe because Cassio is so good-natured and so clearly convinced that Iago is “my honest friend.”
Contrasting in every way to him is Gabriel Ross as an emotionally wild, almost clownish, and completely impulsive Roderigo – a supposed friend of Iago’s who believes Desdemona should be his wife and who becomes a too-easy puppet to Iago’ fiendish schemes, believing he can still win her hand once Othello is out of the picture. But like Cassio, Roderigo’s naivite runs rapid through the veins of his awkwardly jerky body; his too-easily-given trust leads to a demise that involves them both.
Helping round out this fine cast is Samira Mariama as a business-like, no b-s Duke who says as much with her non-verbal smirks as she does with the words the Bard provides her. She returns later in the play as a gaudily dressed Bianca, the openly sexy, loud-mouthed, bedtime diversion of Cassio who becomes yet another instrument in Iago’s evil plan to undo Othello via Cassio.
Gene Thompson is the very white, probably racist father of Desdemona, Brabantio, who scornfully opposes the marriage of his daughter to the foreign-born (and black) Othello. When he goes to make his case to the black Duke who clearly sees right through his obvious prejudices, one cannot help but laugh at his stupidity. Durand Garcia, Stephen Dietz, and Tyri Ballard complete the ensemble, each having their own singularly notable moments as Gratino, Lodovico, and Montano, respectively.
Cayla Ray-Perry’s set design of skeletal wooden and metal buildings quickly tell us how unstable the relations are of those who reside inside while her background, brilliantly colored cutouts of a Cyprus village call upon us to remember how foreign the American troops themselves are in this far-off land of ancient customs. Kevin Myrick’s lighting design highlights the brightness of a seashore country as well as the dark shadows of brewing, diabolical plans and events while he and sound designer Larry Tasse collaborate to bring the flashes and sounds of war into our presence. Durand Garcia’s fight instructions prove to be excellent in the realism of pounding, physical altercations, especially leading to an abhorrent climax as Othello assaults his wife on her death bed. Finally, costume designer Keri Fitch keeps us constantly aware that these are surely American military on foreign assignment while she also clothes Desdemona in rose-filtered innocence and Bianca in bold-striped sauciness.
Even if one has seen Othello a dozen times, the current production of the Shakespeare classic by African-American Shakespeare Company is one not to be missed. Its timeliness, innovation of casting, and sheer acting prowess makes this Othello one to be long remembered and discussed by its audiences.
Rating: 5 E
Othello concludes its short run of only six performances next weekend, October 26 and 27, 2019 in production by the African-American Shakespeare Company at Marines’ Memorial Auditorium, 609 Sutter Street, San Francisco, CA. Tickets are available online at www.african-americanshakes.org.
Photo Credits: Joseph Giammarco