In July of 2020 I wrote a blog post reflecting on my play American Moor and how the gatekeepers of the American Theater could not generally abide the showcasing of work that left them looking like the culprit in a systemic neutralizing of truths while that intentionally cultivated neutrality was precisely where they found comfort and cover, particularly with regard to matters of racial inequity.
A year and a half later, not surprisingly, nothing has changed, though one might be fooled into believing it has. The pandemic and the internationally televised lynching of George Floyd evolved some energies that ushered a spate of shows written by, directed by, and about people of color onto Broadway. But because those shows were only nominally if at all indicting of White-controlled structures, they were ushered through the very same gate that is most regularly kept closed. That is to say, if tales of Blackness had to be told on Broadway because no one, thanks to Floyd, could any longer deny the perpetual systemic bias against Black people, those tales would be the ones that did not further indict but rather bathed the gatekeepers in the light of social justice champions for having opened the gate.
When American Moor debuted off-Broadway in the fall of 2019, there was a great deal of positive regard, but there were also a great many questions. These for the most part were not about American Moor, an exploration of the perspective of the African American male through the metaphor of William Shakespeare’s character, Othello, but rather about Othello himself, as if he were an actual person. They were about Shakespeare’s play and not mine. Questions like “Do you think Othello would have understood race the way that you do?” or “Do you think that Shakespeare was really writing about race at all?” My play, as I was to begin to divine, was far too indicting of the structures of contemporary American power that have kept us all locked into systems of racial bias and practices of privileged theater-making to be a comfortable topic of discussion. As I suggest above, it is as common a practice for White American theater-makers to shift the focus of the dialogue away from their own White American power on trial as it is for conservative politicians to do it. We are generally less aware of it because theater-makers tend to be most often cloaked in vestiges of liberalism. They can look nearly authentic in their professions of allyship.
My answers to questions about Othello, the play, were brief. There was nothing to discuss. We haven’t the tools within the current structure of American theater-making to do anything but a recycling of Othello. We haven’t the resources that might provide the time and tools and support to rehearse deeply and at great length with the purpose of finding a better play beneath the toxic morass of what 400 years of white supremacy have made of it. And what’s more, the gatekeepers don’t want to. There is no money in it, and only more exposure for them as American businessmen and women intrinsic to an ancient scheme of Black oppression for White benefit.
Discussions surrounding Othello, the person or the play, as opposed to those surrounding ongoing American racist practices were much less difficult to have. And what was clear was that continuing to present American Moor was going to continue to prompt those questions intent on steering the discussions in less difficult directions. If, then, I was going to continue to field those discussions, I needed to come up with a version of Shakespeare’s text that could in fact be staged and leave me with any sense at all that the story was plausible. While the questions were a dodge meant to take the spotlight off White malfeasance, if I had such a revised text as a jumping off point, I could at least immediately present something to consider beyond what was enshrined in the White American psyche as unimpeachable. “Here!” I could say. “This is what I think.”
Through the spring of 2020 I created that draft of Othello, but knew even as I concluded the effort that it would not really take on any value, even to me, as a new and relevant rendering until a group of actors had had an extended period of time to take it into their minds and bodies and interrogate it as only actors can. Being a play script, it needed ultimately to be playable and offer something heretofore unseen in the playing. Actors could find that, but only if they were not under the thumb of an impercipient director, or hobbled by the lack of creative agency ascribed to their position as labor in the American Theater business hierarchy.
From there, with the support of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Blessed Unrest Theatre, and Midnight Oil Collective, the process of forging the way to a more “useful” iteration of Shakespeare’s play began.
The project is called Untitled Othello. We started with a series of read-throughs, not of my text but of Shakespeare’s “original.” Through the process of watching and listening to several configurations of core cast read the play, we found our way organically to an ensemble that we wanted to take forward in the work.
The next steps are a series of two-week sessions of table work, a protracted close reading of the text that takes whatever time it needs. Where American Moor, among a myriad of things, explores the stifled expression of the Black creative voice in the American Theater, specifically as it relates to Shakespeare’s Othello, the Untitled Othello Project takes up Shakespeare’s play with the intention of a deeply scrutinizing exploration of the text itself, seeking to find what our minds and bodies will tend to do with this play if given the wherewithal to synthesize it unencumbered by racist control and the art-as-product model.
In these working sessions that we hope to engage with university partners we seek the participation of students and faculty across diverse disciplines to help us parse the complexities of the Othello text, thus creating a cumulative contemporary lens. By expanding the table to include students and faculty, offering them the opportunity to contribute their own thoughts and ideas, the ensemble has the benefit of their perspectives, and they are exposed to newly evolving creative processes of which their academic work would not otherwise avail them.
Our first residency was sponsored and hosted by Sacred Heart University from November 29 through December 10, 2021. The ensemble of 12 occupied a boardroom on the Sacred Heart campus for ten working days over which time students from the various departments of English, Theater Arts, and Catholic Studies joined the in-depth discussion. The entirety of the endeavor was streamed live via YouTube in order to offer the larger academic community the opportunity to look in on the work being done. During our residency, we advanced no further than Act II, Scene I; there was just that much and more to unpack. We were also able to engage via Zoom with a group of 50 students at University of Maryland in a class entitled Race and the Cultural Politics of Blood.
There are more human-centric and socially just pathways to the making of valuable new American theater to be examined here, as well as a way to confront and expose where generations of racist practices in everything American have left us without the tools to communicate, much less create past them. As the purpose of this project, what it hopes to discover and the philosophy behind its way of working, is all born directly out of the issues and discussions that the play, American Moor, seeks to articulate, it seems most logical that we might best further our creative ends by working in residence on a campus where American Moor is being included in curricula, and where the student engagement around the difficult conversations it engenders already exists. That is to say that the reasons to engage with this project are not because social and creative justice are, of the moment, fashionable. In truth they are not, and our industry pretenses of virtue grow more wearisome by the minute. It is because this next generation of artists and educators are ready to make it all real if we encourage them by being authentic, self-critical, and brave in the examples we set.
We must begin to do better somehow, somewhere.
More information regarding the Untitled Othello Project, as well as video and images of the Sacred Heart University residency can be found at UntitledOthello.com.
American Moor is in performance at the Pittsburgh Playhouse/Point Park University, Pittsburgh, PA, February 17 through 20. And in performance at Karamu House Theater, Cleveland, OH, May 6 through May 29.
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What a powerful article and discussion. Just purchased my tickets to American Moor when it will be at Karamu House Theater in Cleveland. Thank you for sharing those dates and links. I will be playing Desdemona this summer at the Interlochen Shakespeare Festival and have been looking for ways to educate myself on this crucial insight. I am someone of privilege and have begun speaking to BIPOC members of my community about how, or indeed if, Othello is productive. Looking forward to exploring the resources of Untitled Othello and more. Thank you again.
Shelby Lewis — February 19, 2022