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Student Blog: How 'Othello' Influenced A Young Black Man

One play changed my perspective on Shakespeare, theatre and the part that race plays in our creative and popular culture.

Student Blog: How 'Othello' Influenced A Young Black Man I was not a theatre kid. I tell this to anyone who has ever asked about my beginnings in the field, and the answer remains the same. No, I was not the kid who performed in the community theatre production of Annie when I was eight years old. No, I did not beg my mother to buy tickets when Wicked or The Lion King came to town on their regional tours. I was much more interested in animation and film and the artforms that I felt that people actually cared about, which did not include people in funny costumes standing on stage speaking loudly and dramatically fainting - - that was what I thought theatre was, because that is generally the image that is conveyed when someone portrays or discusses the art of theatre. It is flashy, dramatic, expensive and exclusive - - none of which are adjectives that described me, and that remains true to this day. I did not find interest in theatre until high school, and even that was by accident. I auditioned for my school's underfunded theatre troupe and got in (because everyone got in) and spent my senior year playing catchup with my newfound love of theatre.

That same year, though, I was struggling personally, and some days I did not feel like playing make believe. One theatrical silver lining that came through was an unexpected one, not in the form of a show I was performing in, but instead one that I was basically forced to read - - William Shakespeare's Othello. I had heard of the play but did not know much about it beyond the fact that it was Shakespeare's play with a Black protagonist. My 12th grade AP English teacher Mrs. Lewis fed the class a full meal of Shakespeare for the second semester and chose The Moor as the main course. The play overtook me. I rarely read assigned literature. Most of the time I read the first chapter and used other means to figure out the rest (I still don't know what happens in A Tale of Two Cities beyond "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Sorry Dickens!) But this ancient Shakespeare play took hold of me and wouldn't let go. It intrigued me, challenged me, disturbed me, drove me. And it has stuck with me even now, years later.

Othello is often described as I described it before, as the Shakespeare play with the Black protagonist, but in many ways Othello the character is not the hero of the story, or even the real focus. While he has achieved military greatness, he has serious problems and besides Iago is the driving force of the conflict and downfall of the story. He is jealous, insecure, enraged, impulsive, falling into what may be the first use of the "angry Black man" stereotype. His downfall is due to his relationship with a white woman who, in contrast, is portrayed as wrongfully accused, pure and filled with nothing but love. And even Othello himself, at the end of the show, dies. I have struggled with this in the years after my initial read of the play and have often returned to it, even writing a play revolving around it. The show not only has negative imagery, the performances and adaptations have often been negatively imagined as well. Of course, the first person to portray Othello when Shakespeare wrote it was not a Black person, or a person of African-descent. That can easily be blamed on being a different time in history, right? Maybe, but the first epic film adaptation, released in 1951, starred producer Orson Welles in the titular role, donning blackface and a curly wig, and that film won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival and continues to hold a 93% overall rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Othello may very well be a contributor to why I am a part of theatre now, and why I am a writer. It is a good play and can be produced nobly, and touches on the issue of race in a way that shows Othello as someone who is not treated or seen equally despite his successes, which is a very real problem that is still relevant today, but at the same time Othello never overcomes this. It is hardly the problem of the show. The problem is that Othello's jealously, lust and mistrust towards the white Desdemona leads to his downfall and throwing all of that success straight down the drain. It is a dark story and one of great poetry and prose, but one that is problematic and painful in certain places. Still, I am grateful for the time in Mrs. Lewis' class, experiencing the play for the first time in text, and I am happy to continue to see the evolution of the show, with people making it their own, forming the story in a way that elevates the original.

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From This Author Student Blogger: Cris Blak