Three Bay Area Companies Stage Othello This Season
Is it sheer coincidence that Ubuntu, Marin Shakespeare, can Cal Shakes are producing Othello? There may be underpinnings of Black Lives Matter and anti-Muslim backlash in the air.
Dameion Brown portrays Othello in Marin Shakespeare Company’s outdoor production.
Photo by Steven Underwood
It’s always a curious coincidence when several companies decide to produce the same play. Ubuntu Theater Project, Marin Shakespeare Company, and California Shakespeare Theater are all producing Othello this season, helmed by their respective artistic directors, which raises the question of what’s in the air right now that resonates with this provocative play about a white officer plotting to drive a Moorish general mad with jealousy.
“A lot of people are thinking it’s Black Lives Matter and all that stuff, and that certainly didn’t hurt, but it’s just that we haven’t done it in a long time, and I’ve never directed it,” said Robert Currier, artistic director of Marin Shakespeare. “I’m getting on in years, so I’m looking to do the plays I haven’t done, and Othello’s on that short list.”
Since 2003, Marin Shakes has been staging Shakespeare plays in prisons with inmates as the actors. “We had always hoped that we would get one of those guys out on our main stage, but most of them are lifers,” Currier said. “But last August, this guy who played Macduff for us at Solano Prison got paroled. And he said, ‘I want to play Othello.’ He’s been in prison most of his life, and I believe he can do the part really well. So he was really the deciding factor.”
When Eric Ting came aboard as the new artistic director at Cal Shakes, three of the four slots in the 2016 season had already been set by his predecessor, Jonathan Moscone.
“When I was first interviewing for the job, one of the things I talked about was thinking holistically about ways in which plays within the season might speak to each other,” Ting said. “One of the pairings I suggested was actually Fences and Othello. So when Jon announced the season with Fences, I was like, oh, wait, does that mean that I have to do Othello?”
Ting wasn’t sure he wanted to make his Cal Shakes debut with Othello and was considering other plays. “And then I had this experience,” he said. He was on an airplane and woke from a nap to find that a man sitting near him had left his seat, leaving his backpack on his chair. “Then the flight was getting ready to land, and he never came back. I found myself getting incredibly nervous and looking around the airplane trying to find this kid, who was olive skinned, and it was all I could do not to open up the backpack to see what was inside. This is exactly the sort of thing that I as an artist and a human being have railed against, that kind of profiling. I was profoundly disturbed by it. This was right after the Paris attacks, and then Donald Trump talking about people who don’t belong and protecting our country from these outsiders. And I looked at Othello and thought, I have no choice but to do this play.”
Ubuntu, a new Oakland company specializing in site-specific theater in nontraditional spaces, was also inspired to tackle Othello by the disturbing rise of anti-Muslim sentiment. “Often when we think about Othello, we think about the racial dynamic, but he was Muslim and converted to Christianity in order to marry Desdemona,” saids co-artistic director Michael Moran. “I imagine part of the collective unconscious reason for this play arising is Donald Trump saying he would ban Muslims coming into the United States. And the fact that he’s going to be the Republican nominee means there are a lot of people in this country that feel that is a good idea. It’s sort of astounding to think that this deep fear of that particular other existed 400 years ago as well.”