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Is Othello a racist play?

Highlights with subtitles | Debates | Royal Shakespeare Company


Highlights of a debate held on Sunday 9 August 2015 at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.

This was the second in a series of supporting discussions bringing together a variety of expert speakers and commentators to discuss issues and topics raised by our summer season of plays, including The Merchant of Venice, Othello and The Jew of Malta.

Speakers discuss whether Othello can be considered a racist play.

The debate drew on our then current production, and examined what it means to stage a contemporary interpretation of the play.

Is ‘Othello’ relevant today? Sacred Heart hosts playwright theatre residency to find out

From Nov. 29 through Dec. 10, the Untitled Othello Project, an ensemble of nine artists engaged in an in-depth, touring interrogation of the play, will begin a two-week theatre residency at Sacred Heart University to explore the question of the viability of producing “Othello” today.

When Cobb wrote his award-winning solo play, “American Moor,” in 2012, he was philosophizing whether William Shakespeare’s classic play “Othello” could be produced in today’s America, given the structures of racism and misogyny it perpetuates.

The play examines what happens when a middle-aged Black man auditioning for the role of Othello must adhere to suggestions from a younger white artistic director who presumes to understand how to maximize a Black character for believability.

“What happens in the course of the three-minute audition — he has an hour-and-a-half inner monologue that the audience is privy to,” Cobb explained.

“This play spoke to the intersection of our lacking cultural dialogue in regards to race, and how affected by racial bias our American theatre is.”

In the broadest sense, he noted, “American Moor” is about the African American male experience, as seen through the metaphor of The Bard’s famous work. After a successful run Off-Broadway and in theatres around the country in 2019, “American Moor” found new life during the pandemic when Cobb took his play and turned it into a book.

“I turned my attention to publishing, and it has taken on a life in academia where it’s being taught all over the country,” he said.

Emily Bryan, a lecturer in the department of languages and literatures at Sacred Heart, called Cobb to see if he could bring “American Moor” to the campus, but instead, they came to something they both believed would be more valuable to the students.

The group isn’t mounting a production, Cobb said. Instead, the collective will collaborate with Sacred Heart students on intensive table work, studying the characters, scenes, motivations and themes of “Othello.” Sacred Heart student actors will also assume some of the roles.

Bryan and her department collaborated with Rachel Bauer of the department of media and performing arts and Charles Gillespie of the Catholic studies department to partner with Cobb to bring the residency to the university.

“We feel like theatre is a way for us to have difficult conversations — conversations about identity, about how people relate to each other — in a really unique way,” Bryan said.

“This is an exciting opportunity for us to do that. And what I think is so exciting is that our students get to be at the table, too.”

One of the questions Cobb was often asked in post-show productions was whether he was ever going to play Othello, or perhaps direct it, and his answer was always no.

“For reasons I delineate in the play, we do not have the wherewithal to see past our racial biases and the veil of our privileged perspectives to interrogate this play that would bring it to life in any relevant way,” he said. “You haven’t wanted to talk about my ‘Othello’ for 50 years.”

Realizing that the questions would keep coming, when the lockdown hit, he knew the only way he’d ever be able to say “yes” to the question was to create a version of it that he felt was nominally playable to him.

That led Cobb to create a take on “Othello” that could be done by a group of actors who could percolate with the material, and have no pressure to put on a performance, and see what they could find.

Actors who would be paid for four to five months to make their art.

“It’s a chance to take the play to another level and present something that the audience has not seen,” Cobb said.

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