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Theatre & Performance Stratford Festival 2019: A black director and a black lead actor tackle a modern Othello for the age of Donald Trump

Michael Blake, left, as Othello and Gordon S. Miller as Iago with members of the company.

Chris Young/Handout

The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, Shakespeare’s ever-relevant roller coaster of racism, sexism and viral misinformation, has a controversial performance history pretty much everywhere in the world – but it can seem doubly so at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ont.

For the first three decades of the Canadian classical theatre company’s existence, white Stratford actors darkened their faces to play the title role. (The last to do so was Alan Scarfe in 1979.)

And then, for the next 2½ decades, when actors of colour were finally hired to play Othello, they were inevitably imported from the United States (Howard Rollins from Roots: The Next Generations in 1987; Ron O’Neal of Super Fly fame in 1994).

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It was as if the institution of Stratford believed black Canadian actors didn’t exist, or just weren’t up to the job, all the way until 2007, when Philip Akin became the first to tackle the role.

Now, on Monday, the Stratford Festival officially opens its 67th season with a new production of Othello – marking another milestone.

Nigel Shawn Williams, former artistic director of Factory Theatre, is directing the show on the Festival Theatre stage, following his successful production of To Kill a Mockingbird there last year; he’ll be the first director of colour to tackle the tragedy at Stratford.

But does that matter – or are white journalists (like this one) too obsessed with race in cultural reporting these days?

I sat down to interview Williams, a well-known classical actor who played the Moor himself in Toronto in 1995, and Michael Blake, the Stratford rising star who plays Othello this season – and the tables kept turning between interviewer and interviewees.

Michael Blake, left, and Nigel Shawn Williams.

Brent Gooden/The Globe and Mail

Nigel Shawn Williams: Do you actually like Othello, the play?

J. Kelly Nestruck: Okay, so, we’ll start off with you asking me a question. Yeah, well, I would say, Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy as theatre? Absolutely Othello. I think it works better as a play than Hamlet, or King Lear, or Romeo and Juliet.

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Michael Blake: It’s all muscle, isn’t it? It’s a freight train. It just moves forward.

JKN: And it almost always makes me cry. I feel emotional connection, whereas I never really cry over Hamlet, you know.

MB: Othello’s not entitled and sitting on something and then something horrible happens to him. No, this is a guy who ascended; he built himself.

NSW: Yeah, he worked for it!

MB: And he’s also an Other in a society that is clearly very fragile – where, you know, one guy says the right thing to certain people and it undoes him.

Blake and Amelia Sargisson as Desdemona.

David Hou/Handout

NSW: That’s one of the reasons why I decided that I had to do this play: The climate which we’re in, in which lies are more important than truths, and words are being used as weapons. The fragility of Othello and Desdemona’s relationship, I think, it’s always misconstrued. It’s an incredibly strong relationship, but we all have fragility as human beings; we all have insecurities.

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JKN: It’s been noted that you are the first person of colour to direct this play at Stratford.

NSW: Who noted that?

JKN: Who noted it? I don’t know, I’ve heard it said. It’s been reported – or was that just me?

NSW: No, I guess it’s true. I guess I’ve never really thought about it.

JKN: Does that mean anything for you to be the first black man to direct this play here?

NSW: It’s in degrees. It doesn’t mean anything to me as an individual that I’m the first black artist to be directing this. It means everything to me that I have an opportunity to put my experience – and my black experience, but also my experience as an artist – into this this play … There’s a story to be told – and my job is just trying to tell the story, right? But because I’m a black artist, that socio-politics will absolutely go into the show. I’m not going to ignore the racism in it. But, also, my politics is such that I’m not going to ignore the misogyny, or the power of patriarchy in the play.

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JKN: Michael, you first played Othello before at Bard on the Beach in Vancouver in 2009.

MB: Yeah. Ten years ago, doing this play, was so much more about treating it as a sort of Herculean effort. I was relieved when I read that James Earl Jones played it for the first time at 25, because he had played it even younger [than I had at Bard] …

JKN: Does it make a difference for you having a black man directing the play?

MB: Well, no. When I did it at Bard, I had Dean Paul Gibson, who’s associate artistic director there and a brilliant director... It’s interesting to navigate the play now [at Stratford], through a modern context

JKN: So this Othello is set …

The new Stratford Festival production of Othello is set in the era of Donald Trump.

David Hou/Handout

NSW: In contemporary times. It’s now. I just didn’t want to put it far away and at arm’s distance … There’s a political leader right next door to us who is very, very culpable to the way we are right now. Lies and misinformation have been normalized. We’re in a dangerous time.

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JKN: I find actors, Stratford actors in particular, are sometimes more conservative than directors in terms of this stuff. Michael, I saw you, on Facebook, post that that old Onion joke article: “Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare Play In Time, Place Shakespeare Intended". Was that a dig at Nigel?

MB: [Facebook] always comes and bites you in the ass... I just thought it was funny!{

JKN: You were saying earlier that Othello was not, initially, a part that you were, like, “I have to play that part.”

MB: Just because I don’t want to ever have that arrogance or that hubris about where I need to be in my career. That I should be playing Hamlet now, or I should be playing Richard. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not not ambitious. You know, like, I don’t feel like I’ve ascended too quickly. Does that sound weird?

NSW: I know what you mean. But, [being wary of] ascending to Othello … I’m just wondering, was it because it was expected of us, as black actors?

MB: No, no. I just always assumed [Othello] was like a big, strapping guy...

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NSW: Like James Earl Jones.

MB: Yeah. But then, you know, you read [the play] and it’s just a passionate guy. The first time I did it I remember finding a book about the history of Othello – and Ben Kingsley, who’s, like, 5 foot 4, played it. [Note: Kingsley is around 5 foot 7.] And let’s not even get into the white history of it, the whole blackface history of that play.

JKN: For you, Nigel, those expectations that – as a black actor – Othello is the pinnacle, is that something that weighed on you when you played the part in 1995 in Toronto?

NSW: That’s the machine I raged against. There was a limitation of vision of what a young black actor could achieve in the eighties and nineties.

MB: Yeah, and then now you’ve got it. And then you’ve done it. And then what?

NSW: And then what, right. Othello’s a really great role. But there’s, you know, more than that.

Blake on the play: 'It’s all muscle, isn’t it? It’s a freight train. It just moves forward.'

David Hou/Handout

JKN: Michael, I want to talk about your trajectory here because I sort of feel like you were around a while [starting in 2011] – and then came your big 2016 season, glowingly praised by Canadian critics but also in The New York Times, for your Macduff in Macbeth and George Deever in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons.

MB: Yeah, that was that was all on Ian Lake, man. I’d gone to play Edmund in Lear at Bard on the Beach. Ian called me: “Hey man, I’m playing Macbeth, but we don’t have a Macduff yet.” I wrote [artistic director] Antoni [Cimolino] a quick e-mail … Two weeks later, [he responds] “You want to play Macduff and George Deever?”

JKN: In that little gap where you went away and then came back, from an audience point-of-view, there were some changes in the philosophy of casting around here, from colour-blind to colour-conscious.

MB: Yeah, isn’t that crazy what’s going on in New York right now with All My Sons [on Broadway]? The original director [Gregory Mosher] left because he wanted to cast Ann and George Deever as black and the Miller estate said they couldn’t do it. They let us do it here, but they won’t let them do it in New York? [Now the Broadway production] has a black George, but his sister’s white. They’re calling it colour-blind casting.

NSW: I hate that …

MB: Me too.

JKN: Stratford’s All My Sons was really talked about as being “colour-conscious” here, but, in your period here before that, did you see yourself as playing a black man when you were on stage?

MB: Playing a black man? I am a black man.

JKN: But did you see the characters you were playing as black before that moment, before that production? In the Des McAnuff years at Stratford [2007-12], the word was “colour-blind casting”, right? It doesn’t seem like that long ago that was talked about as the progressive way of diversifying a company like Stratford.

MB: It’s funny. This sort of conversation is very tricky, right? Because this is all rooted in an idea that I’m joining something, versus me being in it. I don’t want to ever feel as though I’m being tolerated or allowed to play these parts.

Williams, left, is the first black director to stage Othello at Stratford.

Brent Gooden/The Globe and Mail

NSW: People of colour, artists of colour, have been in this conversation for a very long time. And now it is a political hot-spot for companies, arts or not, to be inclusive. … I would just not talk about diversity. Diversity is not an active word. You want to talk about the Stratford festival? I think my acknowledgment from the last few years is that Antoni has a very, very acute understanding that there’s a conversation going on globally and in this country around him; and that he is actively trying to muscle this large organization … into the present. I think that he wants to get ahead of it and be ahead of the conversation.

JKN: So, the reason why our conversation is veering in this direction is this play, here at Stratford … It takes over half a century, until 2007, for a black Canadian actor to be cast as Othello.

NSW: I think that is an important thing to bring up, because I think that there are a number of levels to that. I think it is connected to the number of young actors of colour in theatre schools. Whether you’re Armenian, or from Trinidad or Syria, or Jamaican, the risk of moving your entire family, coming to Canada and putting all that investment … and then your child wants to be an actor? … I don’t think that Canada had invested well enough to train actors of colour to take it on. But now, now, we’re in a different time in which –

MB: It’s growing, it’s building.

NSW: Yeah, Canada has classical actors of colour now.

JKN: I think you are more generous than I am because I think of it like a chicken-egg thing. Like I think people can do classics when they’re given the opportunity!

MB: Nah.

NSW: You’ve got to be trained for it.

MB: You’ve got to train it! That’s a muscle. We pulled apart a couple of speeches today, a two-hour session where we were sitting there, grinding with the Folio.

NSW: Shakespeare’s a study. Shakepeare’s something you learn, you can’t do Shakespeare off the street because there are clues in it. So if you don’t understand punctuation, if you don’t understand what a semi-colon tells you, if you don’t understand what a colon tells you after that, then you could be lost in it

JKN: To put a button on this conversation, Nigel, you asked me if I liked Othello, so I guess that’s my question for you. I don’t think this is necessarily an obvious answer. Do you like it?

NSW: I love it. I love it.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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