Othello at the American Shakespeare Center

By Kara Hankard

Othello is one of the two plays that The American Shakespeare Center showcased in their Safe Start Season this fall. For many audience members it was the first show seen in person since the start of quarantine. Audience members could watch Othello live indoors at the Blackfriars Theater or live outside at their Blackburn Inn Theater, or via recording on Marquee TV. As a fan of Shakespeare and the ASC, I always enjoy their shows, but this production was additionally enjoyable for its timeliness.

This was the first live performance of Othello that I have seen and I was blown away by Jessika D. Williams’s Othello and Mia Wurgaft’s Desdemona. The entire ensemble was fantastic, but Jessika and Mia stood out for their bravery to be vulnerable and their detailed character work. Their reunion in Act Two, Scene One made me feel like I stumbled upon a genuine, intimate couple-moment instead of two actors pretending to be in love. There were many beautiful moments between them sprinkled throughout the show, which made the tragic end of the play all the more devastating.

In some of the interviews I watched regarding this production, Jessika D. Williams discusses the research she has done regarding Othello’s mental health. Other actors may forget to incorporate his history of displacement, slavery, and fighting mental health issues, but Jessika does not.

Jessika openly discusses the effect of playing Othello on her mental health in interviews. Playing Othello is a challenge in and of itself due to the lack of opportunities for Othello to explain his reasoning to the audience. It is additionally challenging to play Othello as a woman. In a PBS interview, Jessika elaborated on this: “being a female and playing Othello, it’s just another obstacle of assimilation … I’m not wearing masculinity, I’m playing masculinity, and it’s yet just another struggle, another obstacle for this person to overcome to fit in.” For more of an in-depth conversation about female actors playing Othello, I recommend watching the ASC’s Then Must You Speak, Episode 12 with Debra Ann Byrd and Jessika D. Williams.

To my knowledge, this production of Othello is the first time that the American Shakespeare declared their stance on a political matter. During the pre-show music section of Othello, Topher Embrey introduces “Glory,” originally by Common and John Legend, by informing the audience that the ASC and this production support Black Lives Matter. From the performance I attended, I felt a strong sense of community with my fellow audience members, trusting that we all support such an important cause. Disappointedly, that is not always the case. Some actors and front of house staff who I spoke with have told me that some audience members have abruptly left the performance at that time. Hopefully those audience members will educate themselves and change their stance on this issue.

The ASC also produced a staged reading of Keene by Anchuli Felicia King, a play written specifically to be paired with Othello. The two protagonists of this play meet at a Shakespeare conference, Kai is a Japanese musicologist and Tyler is a PHD student writing his thesis on Ira Aldridge, the first black man to play Othello.

Interviews re: this production

Reviews of Othello

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