In, and On, Honesty
What got me hooked on Othello was the love story. I was in the midst of bouncing back from my first heartbreak by falling desperately in love with a man significantly older than me, with comparably more life experience and heartbreak to match. I felt both kindred and validated by an attraction that was intoxicating—and mutual. I was convinced that only I could understand him, only I saw him.
So is Desdemona.
“She loved me for the dangers I had passed
And I loved her that she did pity them.”
Bringing this impassioned perspective to the play those years ago I wasn’t thinking much about race.Significantly, as she enters her marriage and the world of Cyprus, neither is Desdemona. Bear in mind, these are my opinions. But I’ve been trusted to bring this woman to life as we dive into the deep end of Untitled Othello, so I posit that it’s my job to get personal. More important, it’s my job to be honest.
The question of how I can serve this room with my white middle-class experience has been needling me. We seek to imbue the titular character, a Black man, with the fullness of humanity—shouldn’t I just pipe down and listen? Well, yes, and. With a goal so active, almost athletic in its attempt to break ground, passivity has little place in the process. The best I have to offer is my honesty—bringing what I’ve got to the table, internalized prejudices and all, in the hope that my transparency supports my compatriots and adds depth to Desdemona.
So I begin by establishing that for a long time I didn’t need to contemplate the treatment of race, sex, and class in Othello—our common interpretation of the play never challenged my concept of a world in which I operate comfortably. By acknowledging that I step into D’s shoes from my own similarly privileged pair, I attempt to bring a certain insight into Desdemona’s journey through disenchantment, and through those instances where she comes face-to-face with the depth of her ignorance. A woman who, while she may be the embodiment of unconditional love, is also deeply flawed—that is a human I want to watch, am compelled to create.
Our group’s official stance is that we will mine the depths of this play until we exhaust the question of whether a worthwhile version of it (read: one that doesn’t perpetuate dangerous ideas) can be staged. If we decide that is impossible, we’ll stamp “toxic” on the whole Othello box and ship out. But in the name of honesty, my personal motive is to get this bad boy produced. I’ve needed to take a critical eye to that truth, because I know I have the aforementioned soft spot.
But therein lies my hope; somewhere in this play, I’ve resonated with a story of deeply imperfect, deeply genuine love. In that same story, the one in my mind and in my heart, a war hero is sent into a self-destructive tailspin by an embittered compatriot who capitalizes on the way war trauma has rewired both their psyches. THAT is one hell of a different tale than the dangerous one we’ve been perpetuating, wherein a Black man whose clever (white) counterpart’s power of suggestion reveals in him some inevitable, animalistic, wife-beating nature. We have to do better than continually offering up that untruth.
Despite the origin of my care for the play and the people populating it, I’m embracing this ultimate motivation as I personally strive toward an eventual production: Othello isn’t going anywhere. The cult of Shakespeare wouldn’t allow it. Whatever conclusion our ensemble reaches regarding its merit, the play will continue to be produced. I believe we can interrupt Othello’s harmful momentum by presenting a definitively better interpretation of the play—an action more impactful than a vain attempt to “cancel” it from the stage. This goal electrifies me to be exacting in my pursuit of truth and integrity, as I press to find in this text a story worth telling.
At one of our readings earlier this autumn, a member of our ensemble summed up the play (and human nature) with, “Hurt people hurt people.” I’m not looking to make didactic theatre, but there is a cautionary tale to be told here about the way pain builds momentum like a boulder barreling down a hill—we just need to choose to cut past the fat of our preconceptions, to the muscle of that story.
When I wonder about the root of my urgency to work toward a production for public consumption, I think it comes from a greater place than nostalgia and vanity. It partially comes from my actor’s experience, admitting that desperation has led me to daring choices, brave ones. But more important, it comes from the belief that given real time to work with intention—creating safety for the dangerous work we’ll be undergoing (dangerous for our hearts)—and an exacting room of artists demanding one another’s best, we have a formula that might produce theatre our world needs.
This play has been a microcosm of our cultural racism; maybe now we can make it one for our cultural reckoning. That’s my personal mission.