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shakespeare bulletin 39.2 (2021)

Othello: The Moor of Venice, and Becoming Othello: A Black Girl’s Journey

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As COVID-19 case numbers in the United States rose exponentially, theaters were forced to shutter their doors and halt production for the foreseeable future. As 2020 continued on and the prominence of Zoom became a daily feature of the “new normal” in the wake of an ongoing global pandemic, theater companies would take to the platform’s offerings as well. At the same time, the United States also saw a reinvigoration of the Black Lives Matter movement in national media, marked by nationwide demonstrations in response to the 25 May murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, at the hands of local law enforcement. As the protests grew to include seeking justice for other Black people—across gender and class lines—killed at the hands of police, attention shifted from police brutality to anti-Black violence more broadly. Global attention turned to the political movement for the preservation of Black lives, and American consciousness focused more squarely on the subject of anti-Black racism and its pervading every facet of American society and history.

In a way, it feels almost intuitive to stage Othello in this present moment; for some, it is the quintessential Black Shakespeare play and, more importantly, it shows the persistent vulnerability of Black subjects. “Valiant Othello,” as the Duke addresses him (1.3.49), is a decorated general who has served the State well, but is still bound by a social order which dictates that, on account of his Blackness, he must be villainous because of his marriage to the white Desdemona. While I do not seek to assert some objective claim about a “universal” reading of Othello, I want to call attention to a common reading of the play through a critical race studies lens. Read through that lens—which I should perhaps note, is the one I hold most firmly—Othello is not about race as much as it is about the insidious nature of anti-Black racism. No matter what time this play is staged, its central tension speaks to historical anti-miscegenation efforts, driven by the anxiety of what an interracial marriage may produce. As Iago frantically attempts to urge Brabantio, he fails:

Zounds, sir, you’re robbed, for shame put on your gown!
Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul,
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe! Arise, arise,
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you,
Arise, I say! (1.1.85-91)

It is not Iago’s urgent insistence upon the magnitude of this act, but rather Roderigo’s passive agreement, that convinces Brabantio of the severity of Othello and Desdemona’s union. Othello and Desdemona’s marriage may produce a Black child with white inheritance rights. The Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 pushed conversations beyond the obvious assertion that racist violence is bad to more critical, nuanced understandings, and drew broad attention to the pervasiveness of racist logics in every fiber of society—including calling for an examination of the ways that various groups participate in maintaining those logics. This call for more attentive work was taken up by the Harlem Shakespeare Festival both in their Zoom production of an all-women Othello and in their broadcast of a recorded performance of founder and artistic director Debra Ann Byrd’s single-actor show, Becoming Othello.

The ninety-minute, all-women Othello began with Desdemona (Jennifer Le Blanc) clad in white, singing Barbary’s willow song. After concluding her song, Desdemona addressed the camera, offering some exposition to set the scene. The much commented-on intimacy built into Zoom functioned doubly in this moment, creating a feeling of watching a video diary of Desdemona’s musings. On one hand, the diary-esque style of delivery capitalized on this intimacy, drawing the audience into the world of the play in a more direct way, but on the other hand, the hypermediacy of Zoom inhibited what might, in a traditional theatrical space, feel more strongly connected to the audience. The moments when Iago (Lisa Wolpe) delivered monologues built on that same momentum. Visuals in these scenes were erratic at times, working to present a more dynamic Iago within the Zoom medium. Wolpe’s Iago shook the camera with urgency, directly confronting the audience as she alternated between extreme closeness to the camera and a more neutral Zoom position akin to a passport photo. In these moments of erratic camera work and extreme closeups, viewers could notice Wolpe’s own green eyes, even as Iago delivered the famed lines:

O beware, my lord, of jealousy!
It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on. (3.3.167–9) 

The irony of a, quite literally, green-eyed Iago speaking these words to Othello (Debra Ann Byrd) was palpable as Iago stoked the flames of his jealousy with the handkerchief that Othello gave to Desdemona. Doing so in such direct contact with the audience created an intimacy that implicated viewers in the violence of Iago’s plotting and invited the audience to consider their own involvement beyond the world of the stage—or in this case, beyond the world of the Zoom screen.

When viewers first saw the handkerchief, it was a white cloth adorned with red detailing of strawberries. Later, when Othello, at Iago’s insistence, asked Desdemona for the handkerchief he gave her, she produced a black handkerchief instead. I couldn’t help but think about Ian Smith’s brilliant article, “Othello’s Black Handkerchief,” wherein he argues that the handkerchief represents a substitute for Othello himself, rather than Othello and Desdemona’s marital bed. Keeping in mind Smith’s assertion that the handkerchief is Othello, the transition from the white cloth to Desdemona’s offering of a black handkerchief instead indicated that we were getting to the peak of the conflict between Othello and Desdemona as she had begun to see Othello not as he was, but as the rest of Venetian society viewed him. Desdemona’s actual betrayal was one of faith in Othello rather than her chastity, bringing also to mind the ways in which white women are often complicit in upholding white supremacy. This felt additionally significant in the midst of the rise in prominence of “Karen,” “Barbecue Becky,” and other white women who have weaponized their whiteness and the attachment to a presumption of white women’s innocence against Black people merely daring to exist in a shared community space. The offering of a black handkerchief added—or perhaps restored—depth to the character of Othello, which felt especially relevant in this historical moment. Staging an all-women production of Othello created a greater opportunity to interrogate the ways that white women consciously work in favor of white supremacy when they serve as purveyors of anti-Black racism with a Black woman as the target. While this particular production retained the play’s gendering as written, the dynamics between white women and a Black woman were still clearly on display, even with masculine posturing and performance. Playing Othello is not a particularly easy task, but playing a more salient Othello, particularly one calling attention to gender difference in its casting, presents an even greater challenge. In this performance, Othello represented the bottom tier of Venetian society’s social hierarchy as a stand-in for Black women in the world outside of the performance. At every level, this production raised the question of intersectionality and interrogated how holding multiple marginalized identities comes to bear on the social strata of our own world.

The dynamics between white women and a Black woman were still clearly on display, even with masculine posturing and performance.

Playing Othello is not a particularly easy task, but playing a more salient Othello, particularly one calling attention to gender difference in its casting, presents an even greater challenge.

In Becoming Othello: A Black Girl’s Journey, Byrd explains how a Black woman gets to play Othello. In this single-actor living memoir, Byrd details the journey of an Afro-Latina from the streets of Spanish Harlem to the Shakespearean stage, which, as Byrd demonstrates, are not as distant from each other as one might initially think. Becoming Othello outlines the history of Debra Ann, starting with what Black Americans often think of as our beginning: enslavement (“They took African wives,” she states). The history that Byrd performed in this production also included the story within her DNA, which she breaks down as 37% from Congo, 29% from Benin and Togo, 10% from England, Wales, and Northern Europe, 6% Portuguese, 6% Spanish, 4% Native, and so forth—a story which echoed the histories of enslavement. As Byrd performed this early history, her body swayed to a rhythm that was not heard, but felt, punctuated by a sung refrain: “I hear them calling.” In this moment, Byrd connected our very real ancestral enslavement to Othello’s own. In Othello, when visiting with the Duke and Venetian senators, Othello describes wooing Desdemona by sharing his stories, one of which is “Of being taken by the insolent foe / And sold to slavery” (1.3.138–9). In evoking a shared history of enslavement, Byrd effectively planted the first seed of what was later understood to be a life truly not far removed from Shakespeare, punctuated by the realization that “to say that Shakespeare knows no Africans is not true.”

Throughout this journey, Byrd moved from enslavement, to the loss of a child, to early childhood, to the splitting of a family, and other personal trials, integrating Shakespearean quotations and Black musical references ranging from Negro spirituals such as “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child”—a song which Paul Robeson once recorded, making another connection to the history of Black American Shakespeare—to The Sugarhill Gang’s hip-hop classic, “Rapper’s Delight,” into the narrative. While each reference marked a specific affective moment in the journey Byrd outlined, before transitioning from those key points in time, Byrd held space, singing the song, her eyes often closed, as she felt the rhythm and soul of the song. For me, as a Black spectator, there was a comforting familiarity to the way that Byrd paused and took a moment to revel in the musical selection and all that the music itself carried before continuing on the journey as expected.

Byrd later noted having a similar experience while attending a Shakespeare in the Park performance of Julius Caesar where Jeffrey Wright, a Black actor, played Mark Antony. As Byrd described that moment, she recalled seeing a “familiar swagger” in the way Wright performed the role. While Byrd’s references were not solely musical—other Black cultural references included writers such as Ntozake Shange, Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, and August Wilson, among others—the significance of Black culture in the journey more broadly was notable. By bringing in these different Black cultural references, Byrd effectively articulated the ways that Shakespeare, whiteness, and Black art can and do interact. Throughout this journey, Byrd detailed the various experiences of an Afro-Latina woman as a mostly linear chronology, including the trials, the struggles, and (most notably) the joys. One of the qualities of this piece that I admire most is the way that it approaches the question of Black life in what feels to be an honest way; there are clear moments of pain and struggle, and those are never diminished, but there are also moments of celebrated happiness, reminding us of the power of Black joy.

Seeing Byrd’s Becoming Othello, I found myself also thinking about Keith Hamilton Cobb’s American Moor, which details the experience of a Black male actor auditioning to play the role of Othello. As Cobb’s American Moor invites the audience into the psyche of the Black male actor engaging Shakespeare, Byrd’s Becoming Othello offers a kind of prelude to Cobb’s story. Where Cobb’s production takes place in and around the Shakespeare audition, Byrd’s production details one Black woman’s journey leading to the choice to pursue the Shakespeare audition. Becoming Othello engages the question of how one comes to Shakespeare, taking the time to remind us that it is not always through the classroom environment, but other places in our lives. For Byrd, it was in the theater; for me, it was a teen romance novel.

The authority of this language was its candor, its irony, its density, and its beat: this was the authority of the language which produced me, and it was also the authority of Shakespeare.

—James Baldwin, “How I Stopped Hating Shakespeare”

This consideration becomes increasingly important for people of color, especially Black and Brown folks, whose disproportionate access to “high art” often comes through unconventional means. I think often about my own relationship to Shakespeare’s work, including its cultural legacy, landing repeatedly on James Baldwin’s 1964 essay, “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare.” Baldwin writes, “The authority of this language was its candor, its irony, its density, and its beat: this was the authority of the language which produced me, and it was also the authority of Shakespeare” (68).

While I am certainly not first in line to participate in any forms of Bardolatry, I find that many Black people, myself included, have had an experience similar to Baldwin’s with Shakespeare’s work. It is precisely through that experience—an example of which Byrd so expertly presents in Becoming Othello, with Shakespearean quotations interspersed throughout the various moments of her life—that the question of how one comes to Shakespeare emerges. Given the high prestige and social capital the work holds, Byrd calls attention to the ways in which this work becomes a criterion for accessing our worthiness in the frame of white supremacy.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the productions themselves, I am much more invested in the work that the Harlem Shakespeare Festival is doing to create space for and highlight the roles of BIPOC actors and creators in classical theater. By telling these stories, as in Becoming Othello, and expanding for audiences the realm of who “looks the part,” as in Othello, Harlem Shakespeare Festival continues to open up the world of Shakespeare in the midst of a political moment marked by overt racism and exclusionary practices in a so-called post-racial society. For scholars interested in the mission of the #ShakeRace and #RaceB4Race communities, this type of work in the theater industry can serve as a reminder for why our scholarly work matters and perhaps as a starting point for narrowing the rift between academy and industry. As there is interest in both spheres in promoting the work of scholars and theater-makers of color, we may find ourselves more at liberty to claim our Shakespeares, whatever they may look like.

works cited

Baldwin, James. “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare.” The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, edited by Randall Kenan, Vintage Books, 2011, pp. 65–69.

Smith, Ian. “Othello’s Black Handkerchief.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 64, no. 1, 2013, 1–25.

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