Notes from a small island
A weblog by Jonathan Ali

Wednesday, April 07, 2004  

Now, Othello is something of a problem for me. In fact, it's a problem for a lot of black actors. The programme for the recent production of the play at the Royal Shakespeare Company includes an essay called Second Thoughts on Othello, by the actor Hugh Quarshie. In it, Quarshie suggests: "Perhaps Othello is the one [part] which should most definitely not be played by a black actor. Does he not risk making racial stereotypes legitimate and true?"

After years of fighting the just cause to have Othello played by someone who didn't need an hour's make-up before curtain, one might find this view very interesting. However, I find myself agreeing with Quarshie. That Shakespeare even had a black man at the centre of his play fills me with admiration - Elizabethan times not being famed for their kindness to those of African ancestry. But reading such lines as "These moors are changeable in their wills", you see how the play is based on a racist convention: that black men, as Quarshie puts it, are "over-excitable, emotional and unstable".

As an actor, I have always avoided Othello, simply to challenge the notion that every black actor aspires to playing "the lascivious moor". Nor does the story of the "old black ram" who is "tupping your white ewe" really encompass my world view. I found Hamlet, with his connection to the world of the spirits, far closer to the African personality than I did the "foul thief", Othello.

And yet, what are the stereotypes that Quarshie sees in Othello? That the majority of successful black males marry white women? That, once accepted into the establishment, many cut themselves off from the community they have sprung from, only to find themselves isolated and alone? If that is so, many readers of the black newspaper the Voice, whose recent poll on those issues found this to be the case, might say that Shakespeare had his finger on the pulse.

-- From an article by playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah in Wednesday's UK Guardian, about a new adaptation of Othello set amongst London's Jamaican community, entitled The Perfect Black Man.

posted by Jonathan | 10:30 PM 0 comments


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