Two Plays, Two Views of ‘Othello’

New plays at Cincy Shakes and Ensemble Theatre offer portrayals of Shakespeare's Moor and an African-American actor who once played him

click to enlarge William Oliver Watkins and Courtney Lucien in Cincy Shakes’ production of Othello - PHOTO: Mikki Schaffner Photography
PHOTO: Mikki Schaffner Photography
William Oliver Watkins and Courtney Lucien in Cincy Shakes’ production of Othello

Two Cincinnati theaters are engaged in an inventive collaboration. Let’s start with Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, now settled in its new Over-the-Rhine theater. This Friday begins its staging of Othello (running through March 24), Shakespeare’s great tragedy about a bold military man driven to madness and murder by Iago, his scheming lieutenant who manipulates the newly married general into believing his sweet wife has deceived him. It’s an action-packed story full of danger and intrigue, and it has overtones of racism that still resonate after four centuries: Othello is referred to as a Moor, a dark-skinned man from North Africa.

“This is a play that speaks to a national conversation that we’re having right now about inequality and bias,” says Cincy Shakes’ Producing Artistic Director Brian Isaac Phillips. “Othello is a classic work that deals with these very timely issues and also explores the universal themes of insecurity, trust and betrayal.”

Christopher V. Edwards, guest director for Othello, says he has set his production in contemporary Venice, a place that’s “technologically and digitally capable, where war is the norm and not the exception. It is a nation with the responsibility of a superpower, where political and economic interests often outweigh ethical or moral concerns.”

While Cincy Shakes demonstrates Othello’s relevance to the present, Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati — in its recently renovated Over-the-Rhine space — will concurrently stage Red Velvet (March 6-31), a new play about the first African-American actor to play Othello in London in 1833. Lolita Chakrabarti’s script tells the story of Ira Aldridge, an ambitious and charismatic actor from New York City who stepped in to play Othello when legendary actor Edmund Kean fell ill onstage and died not long after. 

Many of the members of Kean’s acting company opposed this replacement and, although audiences flocked to see Aldridge perform at London’s Covent Garden, critics were savagely and shockingly dismissive of his performance and proffered horrifying racist judgments about him, even as the city was rife with unrest regarding the abolition of slavery across the British Empire. 

Aldridge’s London performance was cut short due to this wave of prejudiced negativity, and he never returned to perform there. (In the 1840s and 1850s, he toured throughout Europe where his acting talent was heralded and appreciated.)

These two local productions offer a remarkable opportunity to compare two men who are outsiders, the victims of deep-seated discrimination. ETC’s Artistic Director D. Lynn Meyers recruited Cincy Shakes’ Phillips to stage Red Velvet

“Everybody can think of a moment in their life where they were denied access or opportunity because they were judged by appearance, background or education,” Phillips says. “I love the idea that there’s a personal side to this story that everybody universally can get behind.” 

Both Othello and Red Velvet seem likely to be catalysts for much-needed conversations about racism and bias in today’s world.

Another aspect of these parallel productions is worth noting. Actors’ Equity Association, the union for more than 50,000 theater actors and stage managers across the U.S., has released a study ranking Cincinnati among the top 10 places for live theater in the nation because of the number of Equity members employed.

The report combined Cincinnati and Louisville as one locale, especially because of two prominent regional theaters, the Playhouse in the Park and Actors Theatre of Louisville. But it’s not just large theaters that give us this noteworthy status: Ensemble Theatre’s cast of nine for Red Velvet includes six members of Actors Equity. Another 11 Equity members constitute almost the entire cast of Cincy Shakes’ Othello, including a New York professional, William Oliver Watkins, as Othello. Watkins is a Cincinnati native who graduated from the city’s School for Creative and Performing Arts, a K-12 magnet school. 

“Steady, high-quality performances are being performed by hundreds of professional actors and stage managers in Cincinnati, Louisville and the surrounding areas,” says Mary McColl, Equity’s executive director. “This report shows Kentucky and Ohio theatergoers that exciting performances on the live stage by professional actors may not be so far away.”

In fact, the simultaneous productions of Othello and Red Velvet just two blocks apart significantly illustrates the quality of local professional theater.  

Contact Rick Pender: [email protected]

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