At Woodlands, a white Othello and a black Iago
Shakespeare’s tragedy “Othello” tells the story of a Moor, an African or Arabian general, who is unlike the men of Venice he commands. He is a leader but an outsider, a black face among whites.
But not at Woodlands High School in Hartsdale this week, where director Nicole Masi has inverted the races of the characters.
At the school, where the majority of students are African-American, the Venitians are played by black students; “Othello the Moor” is simply “Othello,” and is played by Jackson Davis, who is white.
The idea of inverting the races came from John MacLean, the heralded Woodlands English teacher and director who retired last spring. He suggested that Masi flip the roles and focus less on race and more on the relationships among the characters.
It was an a-ha moment for director Masi.
“I said, ‘Of course!’ We extracted the word ‘Moor,’ because our Othello is white,” she says.
Davis, it turns out, is following in famous footsteps. While many actors have put on blackface to play the Moor, there is one notable exception.
“Patrick Stewart played Othello,” says the Woodlands senior. “He always wanted to play Othello, but he’s white. So he made everyone else African-American.”
Jackson Davis plays Othello. Photo by Matthew Brown/The Journal News.
This Othello may be white, but he’s still isolated, not like everyone else, and still universal.
Othello wins the beautiful Desdemona (Caturah Brown) by spinning stories of his youth. Having won her love, he fears he cannot keep Desdemona from betraying him. Of course, the seed of the fear of Desdemona’s infidelity is in Othello’s mind, but it is watered and fertilized and nurtured by the sinister Iago, played by senior Stephen Doyle III.
Doyle says playing the manipulative spider that is Iago is a matter of digging deep.
“I think when you try to naturalize the character, you realize that there’s a Iago in everyone, there’s always a jealous side that is going to come out,” he says. “He’s smart enough to get all these actions started up.”
Actions like germinating the seed of doubt in Othello’s head, tricking the servant Emelia into unwittingly stealing her mistress’ handkerchief and playing all sides to do his jealous bidding.
Jackson Davis, as Othello, left, listens as Stephen Doyle III as Iago, spins a tale. Photo by Matthew Brown/The Journal News.
Why? Why would Iago behave that way? And how does an actor at Woodlands High School prepare to play the part?
Doyle, in true Iago fashion, did his homework.
“I took little bits of all my cast mates and made a list of all the things I didn’t like about them,” he says, shocking the assembled company members. “It was just in bullet form. But you have to know why you’re doing what you’re doing. And that helped.”
Masi says the themes of jealousy and rage in literature are not foreign to her students, who learn how to tease out those story elements in freshman year.
“We dive into these themes and universal truths early on,” she says. “They’re very accustomed to identifying them, especially in Shakespeare.”
Davis says “Othello” covers much the same ground as contemporary reality TV.
“It’s like a classy ‘Jersey Shore,’” he says with a laugh.
“It’s different from acting in contemporary theater, because you have to take the time to dissect the language,” he adds. “The language is like a puzzle, but once you figure it out, it’s great. Once you do that, you find that what Shakespeare’s talking about is no different that what we encounter in everyday life.”
Doyle, who plays Iago, agrees: “I think the reason why Shakespeare’s plays have lived as long as they have is because the themes are relatable and natural and allow that.”
Caturah Brown as Desdemona, with Jackson Davis as Othello. Photo by Matthew Brown/The Journal News.
Caturah Brown, who plays Desdemona, says her character’s reaction to Othello’s jealousies is not the reaction she’d give the general.
“She loves Othello so much that she doesn’t want to do anything to challenge him,” says Brown, a senior. “She walks on eggshells around him. She knows there’s something going on with him. It’s difficult playing the reserved and obedient wife because sometimes I want to smack Jackson across the face, but it’s really cool.”
What would she tell Othello?
“I would tell him, ‘You’re wrong. Don’t treat me like that. I love you and if you love me you would respect me and you would know that I’m telling the truth.’”
“That’s the PG version of what she’d say,” Doyle interjects, seemingly in character as the trouble-making Iago.
“They would censor me if I said what I really thought,” Brown agrees, with a laugh.
Some of the cast, crew and creative team behind “Othello” at Woodlands High School, which will be presented Dec. 14 and 15 at 7:30 p.m. at the school, at 475 W. Hartsdale Ave., Hartsdale. $10, $5 for students and seniors. Photo by Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News.