For more than 200 years after Shakespeare’s Othello was first staged in 1604, only white actors played the title role. From Richard Burbage to Edmund Kean, the Moor of Venice was portrayed by seasoned white tragedians in blackface. Not until 1826 was Othello finally played by a black performer: renowned African American actor Ira Aldridge.
Aldridge emigrated from the United States at the age of 17 and pursued a professional acting career in London that led him to perform throughout England and abroad. Yet his work as Othello drew criticism in London. The editors of the London newspaper The Athenaeum recoiled in disgust at an 1833 Covent Garden performance of Othello, in which they witnessed the white actress Ellen Tree (Desdemona) “pawed about the stage by a black man.” And despite Aldridge’s innumerable successes as an actor, it would be another hundred years before the role of Othello was taken up by fellow African American actor Paul Robeson.
The 1944 production of Othello on the West End of London featured Robeson and, as written, a white Desdemona. The physicality of the two actors onstage, including the kisses shared between them, scandalized the primarily white audiences just as Aldridge and Tree had a century before.
Since the mid-twentieth century, there have been several other notable black Othellos, including Laurence Fishburne and James Earl Jones. In modern productions it has become customary to cast black actors as Othello, but there are instances of white Othellos throughout the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
Laurence Olivier famously “blackened up” to play Othello on stage and screen in the 1960s, as did Anthony Hopkins in 1981.
DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company produced a racially flipped Othello in 1998 featuring Patrick Stewart as a white Othello. Actors of other ethnicities have also played the title role. The text of Othello is inconsistent in its information about Othello’s race, in part because Shakespeare would not have had complete knowledge or understanding of the huge variety of peoples that lived in North and Sub-Saharan Africa. Casting Arab actors is a particularly justifiable choice, not only because of the “otherness” assigned to Arab culture in the Islamophobia that gripped the Western World after 9/11, but also because Moors were a people from the Middle Eastern/ North African region. Scholars and artists continue to debate about how the text defines Othello’s race—but the important point is that his race and his origins contribute to the “otherness” that in part allows the plot to unfold.
Though race plays an important part in casting a play like Othello, it is not the only distinguishing physical trait that contributes to the portrayal of a character on stage. For example, although the text does not directly state Othello’s age, there are references throughout the play that indicate he is no longer a young man; regardless, many companies choose to cast younger actors. Avant Bard’s production, however, features Chuck Young, a veteran DC actor (and Avant Bard Acting Company member) who is older than the typical modern Othello. This accentuates the age gap between Othello and the younger Desdemona (played by Acting Company member Sara Barker), adding an additional point of contention to their marriage.
As you can see from the images above, the physical build and general appearance of Othello vary from production to production. Physical traits— including whether an actor has broad shoulders, is short or tall, or has hard or soft features—all contribute to the character and ultimately the story.
THE FACE OF IAGO
The casting of Iago has had less coverage, but it recently came to the forefront of Shakespearean news with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s announcement that Lucien Msamati would be its first black Iago. Msamati will be taking on that role in the RSC’s 2015 production of Othello. This will not the first time a black actor has played Iago, but it is a high-profile case and a first for the company. Avant Bard’s production, too, features a black actor (Acting Company member Frank Britton) as Othello’s treasonous ensign. Working with an Othello/Iago pairing of the same race presents interesting and challenging questions about racism, assimilation, and “otherness.”
When you come to see Othello, you will encounter an Iago who puts a new twist on the traditional race-related challenges of the play: Othello is no longer the only black character on stage. Iago’s use and acceptance of racial slurs signifies something more complicated than his own racism, especially considering that his own marriage, like that of Othello and Desdemona, is interracial. And you will have to decide: Do the characters—and do you—racially separate Iago from Othello because his skin is a lighter shade of black?
Note that Avant Bard’s production run of Othello coincides with Black History Month. Could there be a better time to you to revisit this classic, or a more fascinating local cast to see perform it? For tickets and more information, click on the image of Frank and Chuck below!
EMILY ANNE GIBSON is the production dramaturg for Avant Bard’s Othello and is the script developer for the upcoming radio play collaboration with Lean & Hungry Theatre. Emily graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with degrees in Dramaturgy, History, and English. She has worked as a production dramaturg at Carnegie Mellon, Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, and The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. She has also done new play dramaturgy in New York and Pittsburgh and maintained a TheatreMania University column in 2012. You can view more of Emily’s work at emilyannegibson.com.