When the pandemic struck down Court Theatre’s 2020-21 season, its production of Othello, adapted by artistic director Charles Newell (he/him), would have seemed to be one of the less affected productions. It was intended to close out the company’s ’20-21 season—and, as things have shaken out, its Oct. 15 opening date is only five months later than its originally scheduled May opening.
But the last 18 months of the pandemic turned out to be a perfect opportunity for the team behind the production to not merely reschedule the show but to slow down, expand its development process, and truly grapple with what it means to produce this particular Shakespeare play.
Over the course of the last year and a half, the team met on Fridays for two hours over Zoom for salons to discuss the text, characters, and design ideas without the pressure of normal production deadlines. Gabrielle Randle-Bent (she/her), who is co-directing the production alongside Newell, joked that the process has been so long that it started before she knew she was pregnant, and now she has a 14-month-old child. The result of this elongated process has been a deconstruction of Shakespeare’s play—a version that places Othello at the center of the story and truly digs into the longer title The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice.
“The kind of tipping point was a moment when we said we want to find the true tragedy of Othello, the moor of Venice,” Newell said. “And the only way to do that would be to shift the focus from the Iago manipulation of this character to really what is Othello’s tragedy.”
So often, Newell continued, audiences come out of seeing a production of Othello having seen a story, or at least processed a story, that is more about Iago’s actions and ambitions than about the life or experiences of the play’s titular character. In a story about a Black man, in other words, a white manipulator often takes centerstage—which can wind up marginalizing not only Othello, but every other character in the play. This led to the Court team to dismantle the play and quite literally to put Othello in the center of their production.
“Many of us, myself included, were not convinced that there was a true humanity at the heart of Othello,” admitted Randle-Bent. “But the bravery behind the question of, ‘If we’re going to do this, we can’t do it unless Othello is a full human being,’ and what it means to not just center Blackness but to center Black people, made all of that possible.”
In a world where the gravitational pull hews strongly toward a center of whiteness, Randle-Bent went on to say, when you actually center Black people and their experiences and lives, everything changes. For Court, this came to fruition in two ways: First, by literally adjusting its set design to have the audience on the stage, creating a theatre in the round on its proscenium stage, and placing the action in the middle of and all around the audience. Second, by inviting Kelvin Roston Jr. (he/him), who plays Othello in the production, into design meetings, opening the door for Roston to have a hand in determining the way this story was to be put onstage.
“I can’t remember ever having an actor be part of a whole design process before,” said set designer John Culbert (he/him), the former dean of the Theatre School at DePaul University, whose lighting and set designs have been seen all over Chicago theatre. “It informed and changed how we were thinking about the play. That informed all of our choices from beginning to end.”
The simple act of inviting Roston into the room and asking him what he wanted the production to be about, what inspires him, what challenges him, and what excites him about the production helped ground the team in Othello’s world. Roston called the rare opportunity to offer his insight during design meetings a silver lining of the pandemic. Newell recalled Roston offering the foundation of love and brotherhood to the play, making the stakes of the play more personal and profound; in this vision, Iago, out of his own dysfunction, leads his friend—his brother, really—through this terrible series of events.
“What I said to him was, if Othello loves Desdemona as deeply and intensely as he does,” Roston recalled, “what type of a relationship must he have had with Iago to be able to allow him to change his mind like that?”
Said Newell, “That’s a thought and an approach to the character that certainly none of us in our design meetings had thought about.”
The result so far, both in rehearsals and for the audiences who have seen the show in previews, has been the discovery of more humanity not only in Othello and his story, but in every character in the show. As Newell and Randle-Bent emphasized to their actors during the process, every character has their own personal tragedy in this story.
In my experience watching the production, that was never more evident than in the relationship between Othello and Cassio, who is typically the pawn in Iago’s plot to lead Othello to believe Desdemona was unfaithful to him. Prior to this production, I had never seen a Black actor in the role of Cassio (played at Court by Sheldon Brown). Immediately, the centering of Othello’s perspective—and the fact that, as Roston mentioned in our conversation, Othello has a very strong relationship with Cassio—made the manipulation of two Black friends by a white man bent on revenge especially agonizing to watch.
That’s partly because I, like Roston, have rarely seen the true friendship between the characters of Othello and Iago and Othello and Cassio highlighted this way. Roston gave some credit to Court resident artist and director Ron OJ Parson, who would tell him that every story is a love story; you just have to figure out what that love is. The additional beauty of this emphasis on Othello and his relationship with Cassio is that it’s easy to become deeply invested in the pain to which Cassio, as another Black man being manipulated in this play, is subjected.
“He is the only one who can honestly say that he was true not just to himself, but also to the ones he loves,” said Randle-Bent. “So we are able to hold the full tragedy of Othello without his demise equating to the totality of Black life and death. But that Black life continues, even as we’re able to mourn.”
In an effort to foster a deeper connection with these characters, the theatre moved away from its typical proscenium setup, with Culbert’s set design situating the majority of the audience in the middle of the action. Seating is arranged on the stage in small sections of swivel office chairs, with action taking place both on the thin runways between their sections, as well as on extensive scaffolding that surrounds the seating area. The scaffolding, which could easily be the kind you see on a sidewalk as a building undergoes renovations, serves as both a metaphor for the dismantling of the story of Othello as well as a way to emphasize that the audience is part of this story—they’re in this with Othello, not merely distant observers of his tragedy.
Of course, there were some concerns over whether audience members would go for this setup, or if they’d be too concerned about being a distraction in an intimate environment with their swivelling chairs. At the performance I saw, there was certainly some hesitation to swivel to follow the action as it moved between the inner circle and the outer scaffolding. But there were audience members who were quite comfortable turning all the way around, even if they found themselves face to face with a more reluctant attendee.
As an actor, Roston told me later, the close quarters allowed him to simplify, to allow Othello to be a human being, rather than trying to fit the character into the more heightened world that can sometimes accompany a Shakespearean production. With this setup, the audience almost has no choice but to become part of the story. Rather than being spoonfed a realistic set, the immersion, combined with our imaginations, allowed us to see the characters walking and having a conversation outside.
An added bonus of this production not having to follow another subscription season production has been the ability to start rehearsals on the actual set, which the company has never been able to do before. This has allowed them to not only get comfortable navigating the scaffolding, but also to play with different locations on the set and dig into movement work with movement designer Erin Kilmurray, whose work took a prominent role throughout the play, as much of the violence is depicted through gesture. The killing of Desdemona, for instance, takes place without actors physically interacting.
“We were looking at this text of Othello and saying, this is not a thing that…exists in and of itself,” Randle-Bent said. “It’s something that is part of a history of not just productions of Othello, but of representations of race and Blackness on the world stage. So it’s also important to not reinscribe the traumas of this text. There are things about it that are violent. There are things about it that are racist. There are things about it that are misogynistic. But exploring those is not just about putting up trigger warnings or eschewing the relationship to violence. What actually felt most important was that we looked at the violence head on.”
In that, she continued, their impulse moved from centering the violence onstage around fake blood or knives or guns, to exploring the fact that some of the deepest violence in the play is psychological. Every such violent action, then, even if it doesn’t look like it physically harms someone, must be treated as if it’s deadly. That allowed the company, Randle-Bent explained, to spend more time focusing on the consequences of the violence rather than on the violence itself. (In a piece in the Chicago Reader, Irene Hsiao offers a deeper dive into Kilmurray’s movement work on this production.)
The dual-level scaffolding also opened up some playful opportunities for lighting designer Keith Parham to use floodlights as footlights, turning Iago’s monologues into eerie tales, with an effect similar to someone holding a flashlight below their chin as they set about telling a ghost story. Culbert told me that the scaffolding was partly inspired by colonnade arches in Venice and Cyprus, where the play takes place. But he also wanted to capture the idea that work is happening in their space.
The Court Theatre, like many around the country, is in the midst of ongoing anti-racism and anti-oppression work. They’ve moved on from 10-out-of-12 technical rehearsals and, with Culbert’s set, are hoping to communicate to their audience that their work, and the work of the theatre community at large, is not yet done. This effect is emphasized by the paint-splattered drop cloths covering the unused fixed seating in their theatre, which lends itself (alongside those swivelling office chairs) to the sense that we’re in a workplace under renovation. Newell said he hopes audiences will walk in and think, “Oh, things have changed,” and that when they sit down for the show, the company’s production of Othello can open some eyes about the tragedies going on in the world around them.
“If we could understand how that works in this world of Othello,” Culbert said, “would that help us understand our own world and the racism that’s part of our world? The best way to do that seemed to be to include the audience in the world. Not have us looking at the world—we should be in the world so that we are really connected to what’s going on.”
The pandemic opened up a rare opportunity for Court Theatre. It’s unlikely they will ever have the time to do many of the things they were able to do here again. Newell acknowledged that the probability of them having the time to, say, begin rehearsals on a constructed set are pretty slim. But the biggest takeaway—the aspect of this production that left me needing a deep breath to release the newfound tension I experienced watching the tragedy of Othello—came squarely from Court’s decision to invite an actor into their room earlier. The simple act of having an actor of color, upon whose back the production would eventually reside, being welcome to voice his insights early on completely shifted how this Othello came together and was received. Here’s hoping the effort to include more voices at the table carries into the company’s—and American theatre’s—future.
Jerald Raymond Pierce (he/him) is associate editor of American Theatre. email@example.com
Creative credit for production photos: The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, co-directed by Charles Newell and Gabrielle Randle-Bent, dramaturgy by Jocelyn Prince, movement design by Erin Kilmurray, scenic design by John Culbert, co-costume design by Raquel Adorno and Gregory Graham, lighting design by Keith Parham, sound design by Andre Pluess, with Erin Albrecht as the production stage manager.
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