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Can you handle an Othello for the world we live in now?

Tre Ventour talks about the National Youth Theatre's Othello at Royal & Derngate

OTHELLO at Royal & Derngate (pictures: helen@helenmurrayphotos.com)

Following Laurence Olivier, Adrian Lester, and the first Black British actor to play Othello, David Harewood – Francesca Amewudah-Rivers joins the number of actors that have played the character since his conception in the early 17th century. Directed by Miranda Cromwell and abridged by Dzifa Benson, the National Youth Theatre version of Othello at Northampton Royal & Derngate really was quite different. As someone with a strong love for the arts following my undergraduate in creative writing, and now doing a masters in the social sciences, it was interesting to watch this play through different lenses. As far as decolonising theatre, this production really pushes the boat out in both having Othello as a woman character and hence these characters being gay or bisexual (I do not believe it is said, but happy to be corrected) but also in an interracial relationship. However, interracial relationships in Europe are not a signifier of the 21st century “progressiveness” when we can trace interraciality in Europe, especially in the UK back to Tudor Britain and prior to Roman times. 

To think that it is, would be a mistake when British history is full of examples interracial relationships, unions, and thus children from Mixed-Race backgrounds. In terms of early modern England, they are there in the parish records, you only have to look! Desdemona (Alexandra Hannant) and Othello have married in secret, much to the dismay of her father – a man from the society of yesterday readily complying to the normalisation of heterosexuality as the only sexuality and White as the default setting. In essence, the here and now in the 21st century where White supremacy and straight-washing culture and society is still evident in the Global North. Set in just one night, Iago (Connor Crawford), the snake he is, begins to set in motion a violent course of events. Pearl-clutching English literature bookheads may have problems with this adaptation but it opens up classic works for a new set of potential fans that may find accessing original texts a bit tricky. 

OTHELLO at Royal & Derngate (pictures: helen@helenmurrayphotos.com)

The racialised dynamics of Othello in its original form are famous, commenting on the stereotypes associated with Black men. However, casting a Black woman in this role is a breath of fresh air bringing with it interlocking race and gender dynamics – as Moya Bailey’s “Misogynoir” reminds us racism against Black women will always have misogynistic components. And because this Othello is also gay or bisexual, we must consider the interlocking mechanisms of violence that take place when we are thinking about race, gender, and sexuality. Following the work of great academics such as Prof. Kimberle Crenshaw, Bell Hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, and others I struggle to see a play limited to inside a prism of art, as these characters are reflected in the world around us. The relationship of Desdemona and Othello is a relationship blessed by history. Iago’s manipulation of that relationship, especially through characters such as Bianca (Matilda Rae) and even Desdemona herself, continues to show us how White women are complicit in racial violence, both systemic and the interpersonal (intended or not). In Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism, and History, Vron Ware writes about the histories of White women complicit in racism. However, it would be foolhardy to only think about this historically when White women are still agents of Whiteness even as an oppressed part of a majority group, committing untold racisms across society and upholding racist structures. 

Just over a year since the callous murder of George Floyd by former-police officer Derek Chauvin (aided by colleagues), William Shakespeare’s Othello will always be relevant. While the media continues to report when a Black man is killed by racist thugs (including police), seldom do I see similar efforts when it comes to Black women’s encounters with racists. There is an obvious erasure of Black women’s stories and hence pain, and that violence against Black women and girls is as much an issue as it is against Black men. Whilst Derek Chauvin was being convicted, sixteen-year-old Makiyah Bryant was murdered by police in Columbus, Ohio. In her TED Talk, Prof. Kimberle Crenshaw talks about the pervasiveness of police violence against Black women and girls and how intersectionality allows a more effective frame to help those that inhabit multiple identity markers. Casting Othello as not only a Black woman but a Black woman that is gay or bisexual shows us why intersectionality needs to be a term on all our minds when we see how violence impacts those who inhabit multiple identity positions, in a world where Black women still continue to be cast to the bottom of the so-called and very real socio-political barrel. This is the reality today in 21st century, just as it was in the days of colonialism between the 17th and mid-20th centuries. 

In 1603 to 1604 when this play was most likely written, Britain was in the thick of the Bubonic Plague and really, we have come full circle. Just over two decades later, this country would begin to sow the seeds of colonial exploitation into what would become racial capitalism. In 1627, men like James Drax and Christopher Codrington would sail to the island of Barbados with indentured labourers and take into their possession those that would be the first enslaved Africans in the Caribbean.  However, prior to that, in 1562, a young trader from Plymouth that we now know as Sir John Hawkins hijacked a Portuguese slave ship off the coast of West Africa. He sailed to the Spanish Americas and sold them, making a small fortune. Then, he would have been nothing more than an unscrupulous pirate, however, a pirate no less, that impressed Queen Elizabeth I. The racism of the 16th century is still in our society in many ways, from racist policing to the Whiteness of the school curriculum, senior leadership teams, and the intellectual racisms in the Arts. 

OTHELLO at Royal & Derngate (pictures: helen@helenmurrayphotos.com)

In casting a Black woman Othello, it is pushing back at not only a racist contemporary but also the history of racism in Britain and the former-colonies that goes back centuries which is all truth, a line of dominos – historical structures and events that continue to manipulate our present day lives. A Black woman Othello should not be a big deal in big old 2021, but it is … because institutions continue to resist change. The evident depictions of Misogynoir and the complicity of White women in Black oppression in this play is something I would like to see more critique of outside of the play in how institutions are run. 

This adaptation rarely misses its mark, with the racially marked bodies of Black characters made an issue, from the titular character Othello to her drunken lieutenant Cassio (Ishmel Bridgeman). In contrast to the racially marked characters, we have White characters as racially unmarked with no expectation on them to represent their race. Even though there are critics who will say this play is not about race, we are nowhere near a post-racial Britain, particularly when British society still does not know how to discuss interraciality in the mainstream. 

The artistic choice to use a nightclub as the setting … it made me wonder how intentional this was in the racialised conflicts in this play when we also know racisms nightclubs continue to this very day. If there was something to dislike about this play, (and I am reaching here), it would be the pacing. The play could well have been ten to fifteen minutes shorter and better off for it. There were parts that felt bloated. That aside, the rest was very enjoyable, but I would leave the cast and crew to think about the historical leash they are now part of in Othello especially in Northampton’s Black history. The original racial dynamics of Black men and White women change with Black women and White women. Moreover, there are added layers of White people as terrorists as discussed by Bell Hooks in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center and what happens when White people enter “segregated spaces of Blackness.” 

Although Shakespeare may not have written this play with that in mind, intent is beside the point when society has a mind of its own and has changed since then. 

OTHELLO at Royal & Derngate (pictures: helen@helenmurrayphotos.com)

I want to say well done to the cast and crew, especially to the Black members who I am sure, like I was, have been deeply impact by the events of last year – from heightened discussions about race and COVID to police brutality and the murder of George Floyd. It is hard enough being Black in the UK, trauma in tow, let alone, being Black and working on a play of this calibre. The Black members have worked two jobs on this production, and I hope they are recognised for that. The considered approach to this play is a grand response to Black Lives Matter that I have not seen from many other institutions. They have taken their time and delivered something well-thought out and constructed. Whilst so many institutions rushed to be first, the Royal & Derngate with National Youth Theatre waited and thought about it. You were not first, but my lord you have been effective. 

Unto both of you, I now ask what you will do next? Your Black staff are not okay and Othello is a good first step in showing that you are thinking about them. However, now you must show that you see and value them. In a society that continues to use terms like ‘anti-racism’ and ‘intersectionality’ in theory but seldom in practice, institutions like the Royal & Derngate and National Theatre have a responsibility to describe the full diversity of Black lives that exist. 

Nothing about us without us. 

Tre Ventour is a writer-poet, Black history educator, and anti-racism practitioner. 

Find out more about Royal & Derngate productions here

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