Editor’s Note: We asked Julie Buckner Armstrong, author of several books about the civil rights movement and the history of white people's inhumanity to brown and black people, to stage a “theater review takeover” — whereby a non-theater person writes a reaction to a play they’ve seen. The literature professor in her had some things to say about Shakespeare, but she loved what Jobsite did with the show. Read on...
Jobsite Theater describes its production of William Shakespeare’s Othello as “ripped-from-the-headlines.”
The description is half-true. Then again, so is the title. The Bard could have called his play Iago, and Jobsite could have tacked on "A Timeless Tale of White Rage."
The play, written between 1601 and 1604, centers on the relationship between Othello, a Venetian military general, and his ensign Iago. Angry that Othello has promoted another soldier, Cassio, instead of him, Iago plots the general’s ruin.
Race holds the key. Othello is a Moor, a term in Shakespeare’s time for African Muslim. He has recently eloped with Desdemona, who is white, and the daughter of a senator, Brabantio. From the beginning, the audience knows this story will end poorly for Othello.
The first scene opens with Iago and Desdemona’s former suitor Rodrigo banging on Brabantio’s door late at night lynch-mob style, yelling “an old black ram is tupping your white ewe.”
Mixed race relationships no longer hold the taboo that they did in Shakespeare’s day. Nor do they carry the dangers of the days when black actors first played Othello: The U.K.’s Ira Aldridge in 1825 and the U.S.’s Paul Robeson in 1930. Previously, and as recently as the 1990s, white actors played Othello in blackface.
What holds up, especially in Jobsite’s production, is how the play dramatizes white constructions of blackness. Hence the title trouble. A typical Shakespearean tragedy centers on its main character’s fatal flaw. Macbeth schemes. Hamlet hesitates. Othello has, not a flaw, but his problem of his position as a black man with power in a white man’s world.
Jealous, predatory Iago gets the play’s flaws — and most of its lines.
Shakespeare primes the audience for this to be Othello’s story, but doesn't follow through. The rules of tragedy dictate that the main character’s downfall should result from bad choices. Instead, we don’t see what motivates him and, ultimately, don’t believe him as a tragic figure.
Jobsite modernizes the costuming to business suits and military fatigues. But it’s hard to envision Othello as a general of today (or Shakespeare’s time for that matter), standing silently while accused of winning his wife through witchcraft, or falling gullibly for a story about a stolen hankie.
The success of Iago’s evil schemes depends upon Othello being more projection than person. He must do things that make sense only in the realm of white people’s imaginations — such as drop to the floor in a trance then pop up deciding to murder his wife.
Otherwise, the play does not work.
What saves this production from Shakespeare is its cast. In the first half, Robert Richards Jr.’s Othello gushes with joy at his newfound love. In the second, he sweats and snorts with betrayed rage. Richards and Tatiana Baccari as Desdemona spark with sexy chemistry. Jobsite veteran Giles Davies, as Iago, slithers around the minimalist wood-frame set with a long French braid like a rattlesnake down his back.
At the play’s end, Othello’s descent into savagery and Iago’s exposure as villain seem less like a story ripped from the headlines than a performance of white power. Iago, under arrest, retains control of the situation by refusing to speak.
Othello, the title character, was silenced before the play began.
Othello. Jobsite at the Straz Center's Shimberg Playhouse, 1010 N. WC MacInnes Place, Tampa. Through Feb. 9. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m. jobsitetheater.org.
Julie Buckner Armstrong wrote Mary Turner and the Memory of Lynching and editor of multiple books on the civil rights movement including, most recently, the Cambridge Companion to American Civil Rights Literature. At USFSP she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in American literature, African American literature, Introduction to the English Major, Senior Portfolio, and Introduction to Literature. When she is not working, she likes to walk, canoe, travel, and waste time on social media.