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‘Shakespeare in Wakanda’: Race-swapped ‘Othello’ puts black women in charge

Pour poison in his ear: In the new production of “Othello,” now playing at the Brick Theater in Williamsburg, Dianna Lauren Jones, right, plays the villain Iago, while Kelsey Arden plays the title character.
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It’s color outside the lines.

A new production of “Othello,” opening tonight at the Brick Theater in Williamsburg, gives a new spin to the Shakespearean tragedy by using race- and gender-swapped casting. A white actress plays the titular Moor of Venice, a black woman portrays the villainous Iago, and a black man the delicate Desdemona. The show’s director said it is an idea that has been tickling his brain for almost two decades.

“20-year-old university student me came up with it,” said Temar Underwood. “I just thought ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if’ Fast-forward 18 years later, and the opportunity came up at the Brick.”

The show, playing as part of the annual Shakespeare in the Theater festival, uses an eight-person cast to tell Shakespeare’s tragedy about a black Venetian general destroyed by jealousy. Underwood says that the agenda behind his inverted casting is to create new opportunities for the performers.

“It’s not because I had something grand to say, but I wanted to open options to women, especially women of color, to play these parts,” he said.

During the rehearsal process, the actresses have had to unlearn their restrictions, said Underwood, becoming more assertive as they create a world where black women are in charge.

“The concept in practice is kind of Shakespeare in Wakanda, in a way,” said Underwood. “The idea is that [black women] have the privilege in this world. We don’t have to play the respectability politics, respectability that is defined by white culture. It’s hard to get over, but it’s rewarding.”

Underwood has not changed any of the pronouns or language of the play to accommodate the change in casting. Othello still refers to Desdemona as having “whiter skin of hers than snow,” for instance. The casting makes the racialized language of the play stand out all the more, said the director.

Underwood is eager to find out how audiences react to the production.

“We wanted to start the conversati­on,” he said. “We present ‘Othello,’ we tell the story with this different cast — and we’ll be at the bar across the street after the show. We want the audience to come over and have a drink and talk about what it says to have these changes.”

“Othello” at the Brick (575 Metropolitan Ave. between Union and Lorimer streets in Williamsburg, (718) 907–6189, www.bricktheater.com). Aug. 14 at 7 pm; Aug. 18 at 6 pm; Aug. 26 at noon. $20.

Reach arts editor Bill Roundy at broundy@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–4507.
Posted 12:00 am, August 14, 2018
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