Peggy Russo

Because of fundamental changes in American culture in the early 1940's Paul Robeson was able to break down color barriers by becoming the first black man to play Othello opposite a white actress on Broadway and on tour throughout the U.S. Other African-American actors soon followed in his footsteps. By the 1990s, audiences in North America and Britain had come to expect an African-American in the role; in fact, many actors, directors, and critics believed that Othellowould never again be played by a white. But following the trial of African-American athlete O.J. Simpson for the murder of his white wife, similarities between the plot of Othello and the story of the Simpson tragedy led to comparisons between Simpson and Othello that demeaned Shakespeare's character. Just as slavery and the invention of negative black stereotypes had resulted in a move from black to copper-colored makeup for actors playing Othello in the nineteenth century, so the negative feelings generated among Americans by two years of media exposure to the Simpson trial led to the possibility of changes in the Othello acting tradition.

In November 1997, The Shakespeare Theatre of Washington, D.C. opted to explore the play's limits by mounting a reverse-race production starring British actor Patrick Stewart as a white Othello-the outsider in a totally black society. In the words of British Director Jude Kelly, "[it was] a deliberate attempt . . . to make white audiences experience some of the feelings of isolation and discomfort that black people experience all of the time in their lives." This exploration of the play's racial possibilities was initiated by Stewart himself who had long wanted to play Othello; but knowing that he could never hope to play the role in black-face, he had come up with what he calls a "photo negative" production. He had approached several theater companies with the idea; and it seems more than coincidental that such an idea only became acceptable following Simpson's sensational trial. If nothing else, Simpson's negative effect on the Othello image has had a positive effect on white actors; for a while, at least, it may be possible for them to play the part of Othello.

Of Bears and Chairs and Empty Space
Visualizing the Material Culture of Shakespeare's London
Staging the Self: Theatrical Performance and Identity in Early Modern England
Implied Action and Renaissance Play Text
Othello After O.J.: A Photo Negative Image
Sharing Shakespeare: An Academic's Adventures with the Atlanta Shakespeare Company

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