Shakespeare’s “Othello” Comes to UWF
By C. Scott Satterwhite
When William Shakespeare first wrote “Othello,” Florida was barely on the map—literally. Over 400 years after the play’s first performance in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, the Department of Theatre at the University of West Florida presents a new adaptation of this time-honored tragedy.
Of all of Shakespeare’s work, “Othello” is unique as the racial themes continue to make this play troubling for modern audiences. Set in the city-state of Venice, the play’s main character is a general named Othello who is tasked early in the story with fighting the hated Turks. Despite his military prowess, Othello is always viewed with suspicion as he is not Venetian himself but is called a “Moor,” a term used in Shakespeare’s era to describe people of African descent. In the first scenes, Othello secretly marries a prominent Venetian woman named Desdemona, only adding to his troubles. Using European prejudice to his advantage, Othello’s trusted lieutenant Iago deceives him and sets up a complicated plot that ultimately brings the play to its tragic conclusion.
“Othello” is a story with many themes—jealousy, deception, betrayal, love and loss, as well as bigotry. Prior to the 20thcentury, popular American performances of the play often interpreted the work as a cautionary tale against interracial relationships of all kinds. This began to change, not surprisingly, as African Americans began playing the lead role.
In the mid-20thcentury, the famed African American actor Paul Robeson popularized “Othello” through his own interpretation of the main character. Most modern adaptations, to some extent, follow Robeson’s lead.
Cast to play the role of Othello, Azayah Suggs heads up the UWF production. Fairly new to the stage, Suggs dazzled audiences earlier this year in his performance as Sebastian in “The Little Mermaid.” While there were high expectations acting in a Disney classic, Suggs steps into a much larger role with Othello.
“Never would I think that a role such as this would feature myself,” said Suggs. “No one can tell my 18-year-old self that I’d star in a Shakespearean play.”
As a relative newcomer the stage, Suggs draws inspiration from those greats who went before him. “I take bits and pieces from each—the pacing in a few monologues by Paul Robeson, the facial hair and bald style and stance from Laurence Fishburne,” said Suggs. “But a big inspiration I found for this role is Eamonn Walker.”
Walker famously played Othello in 2007 and was the first black actor to play the role in the entire history of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.
“I love how [Walker] embodies the leadership quality, the stress and frustration Othello has when he loses his mind,” said Suggs. “I could watch him work all day.”
As with any production, the director’s task is to tell the story as she sees fit. Each adaptation will be unique. Director Sara Schoch describes her adaptation as “a bit untraditional—think Stonehenge meets ‘The Tempest.’”
One of the major differences in Schoch’s production is the way in which Desdemona, played by Eleni Demos, is portrayed.
“Our Desdemona is not a shrinking violet but a fierce, worthy wife of a warrior.” Also, the character of Iago, played by Sam Kegley, “is not the maniacal villain we are often plagued with,” said Schoch. “He is craftier, friendlier, and at times, that makes him more frightening.”
In Schoch’s adaptation, “Othello” remains a play about the “usage of racial and gender stereotypes to manipulate people into behaving against their true nature.” More importantly for her telling of this story is the disturbing role of “Honest Iago,” specifically “the brutality and diligence of a sociopath.”
A professor in the theatre department, Schoch said that her desire was to present the play with all of its complexities but also not let the racist language in the original play set the tone for this interpretation. African American portrayals of the main character, with African American actors, did not even become popular until well over 300 years into the play’s history. To state that the play, which features an African man marrying a European woman—whom he later kills in their bed—is problematic is an understatement.
Historic interpretations and usages of “Othello” range, but the racialized aspects of the story are still difficult for many audiences to this day. By removing some of the more obvious racialized language in “Othello,” her play brings the focus closer to Iago’s sinister manipulation of Othello.
For Suggs, the most challenging aspect of the role is getting into Othello’s mind, especially at the point where he feels the most out of control.
“Connecting to his origin and bringing that to life on stage is a handful,” said Suggs. “I have to … put my physical body in the shoes of a man whose upbringing wasn’t so pleasant—having to fight all his life up until the end of the war” said Suggs. “Even after the war is over, he still doesn’t catch a break.”
Though this isn’t Suggs’ first time on the stage, he still finds the role to be a great challenge.
“I’m still a tad new to the swing of things,” said Suggs. “Without the more experienced actors I’m co-starring with, and a die-hard director, I wouldn’t know how to handle the task of a leading role.”
Challenging as this role may be, Suggs seems to be taking this responsibility in stride. “I’ve been working hard, as well as my theatre peers, to bring [Othello] to life,” he said.
Suggs may bring the character to life, but of course, this story is a tragedy. Not only does Othello’s wife die by his hands—with a new twist, according the Schoch—but so does Othello himself. After he learns of Iago’s deception, Othello offers a redemptive speech and leaves his final haunting words—“I kissed thee ere I killed thee. No way but this, killing myself, to die upon a kiss.” The one who survives is the one who created the tragic circumstances, “Honest Iago,” which will forever make this story unsettling.
Modern audiences take modern sensibilities into every Shakespearean production, which is understandable and unavoidable. The audience sees “Othello” through its own historic moment, and this current moment is rife with racism, bigotry, xenophobia and gender violence. These themes are major currents in play, but so are the traditional themes of love, jealousy and deception.
The “green-eyed monster,” a term first coined in this play, still haunts humanity, and likely will for as long as this story is told, helping this play transcend any moment. Over four centuries since the first production of “Othello,” the Bard still knows us well.
WHAT:UWF Theatre Department presets “Othello”
WHEN:7:30 p.m. Oct. 18-19 and 25-26; 2:30 p.m. Oct. 20 and 27
WHERE:Mainstage Theatre at the Center for Fine and Performing Arts, Bldg. 82, 11000 University Parkway.
COST:$18 for adults, $14 for senior citizens and active military, $12 for non-UWF students and UWF faculty and staff, $6 for high school students, free for UWF students