Othello | Women’s Theatre Festival livestream performances: Apr. 8-10 and 16-17, 8 p.m. | Video on demand: Apr. 23-25 | Tickets: Pay what you can 

JaMeeka D. Holloway is having to completely rethink her relationship with Shakespeare.

Like most stage artists, Holloway’s had a long history with history’s most famous playwright. In 2020, she produced and directed an audacious staged reading of Love’s Labour’s Lost with an all-Black female cast, as the first installment of her online series Blk Girls Luv the Bard.

The award-winning director also has mounted productions of Twelfth Night in Durham, Detroit, and New York, and served as assistant director for Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor.

But a deep dive into a new modern verse translation of Othello has forever changed her relationship with him.

The Women’s Theatre Festival production of Shakespeare’s classic, which Holloway directs, opens online this week. As with Love’s Labour’s Lost, the production features an all-Black, female creative team.

“When I look at Othello, it’s very clear to me that its racism has some very misconstrued ideas around blackness,” Holloway says. “This project has really brought me to a reckoning with Shakespeare’s work that I have to meet head-on.”

In recent years, controversy has intensified over the tragedy’s racial dimensions. In a 2015 debate, actor Hugh Quarshie, who was playing the title character in a Royal Shakespeare Company production, described the play “racist by omission rather than commission.”

“Any suggestion that a character behaves as he does because of his ethnicity is by definition racist,” Quarshie said. “When Shakespeare has Iago say, ‘These Moors are changeable in their wills,’ and goes on to demonstrate precisely that, I think it’s fair to ask, ‘Was he being a bit of a bigot here?’”

Nigerian-American playwright Mfoniso Udofia, who was a consulting producer on the  Apple TV series Little America, is even more adamant in her modern verse translation of the work.

“We’re not dismantling the system of oppression in Othello,” Udofia said in a 2020 video interview series from Round House Theatre in Washington. “We’re actually creating and codifying it.”

Calling the story of a cultural outsider’s descent into madness and murder at the hands of a manipulative underling “a manual of dispossession,” Udofia said in the interview, “If you’re going to do it, we need to start having conversations in and around what we are asking our actors of color to do for our entertainment. If you’re going to do [Othello], we need to have real education in and around the tools of oppression.”

Monèt Noelle Marshall, dramaturg of the Women’s Theatre Festival production, notes that much of the power in Udofia’s adaptation stems from its decrypting the anti-Black rhetoric in Shakespeare’s obscure 17th-century prose.

“It’s no longer hidden under language,” Marshall says. “And because it’s so clear how much racialized violence is present in the script, you can’t ignore it.”

Holloway sets the all-women production among students at a prestigious women’s college.

“It felt like the perfect world to explore this story because so many Black women are going through academia,” Holloway says. “Othello assumes that, because she’s gotten in and has excelled academically and socially here, she feels she’s protected.”

Holloway wants audiences to scrutinize the tactics used against Othello in the work.

“History has given Iago a playbook on how to eradicate or undermine a basic sense of security and safety for Black folks in particular and people of color all around.”

Marshall, the dramaturg, notes that Othello “is not a Black story.”

“The only thing [Shakespeare] could do is write a story that mirrors whiteness, that shows whiteness to itself,” Marshall says. “When I’m reminded that this story, about a person being dispossessed of their mind, love, and spirit, is more about the violence of whiteness than the reality of Blackness, it takes the sting out, for me.” 

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Mfoniso Udofia was the creator of ‘Little America.’ Udofia was a consulting producer. 

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