An ‘Othello’ for our time: Was Shakespeare a white supremacist or anti-racist?

PASADENA, Calif.—Fresh from that championship season, A Noise Within’s Spring 2019 season blasts off with a must-see modern dress Othello that demonstrates why the Pasadena classical repertory theatre company just won the coveted Ovation Award for Best Season. Shakespeare’s tragedy is on one level an extremely up-close-and-personal tale about betrayal, as well as about friendship, romance, sex and marriage, but also, of course, that “green-eyed monster,” jealousy.

But the Bard’s interracial angle, set amidst the play’s power-elite milieu, elevates Othello to the upper ranks of his 38 plays that are full of social commentary. The modern dress, plus non-traditional gender and ethnic casting components in ANW’s production, adds a whole new 21st-century dimension to this drama penned in 1604. The dramatis personae who belong to the armed forces wear contemporary-looking camouflage and dress uniforms emblazoned with “fruit salad” medals, ribbons, etc., while civilians, including Venetian officials, are garbed in 2019 plain clothes, all courtesy of costume designer Angela Balogh Calin.

This inspired effect, especially the martial element, is startling as it propels the early 17th-century drama into the Trump era similar to the way that Orson Welles’ iconic 1937 modern-dress Mercury Theatre production of Julius Caesar, with its black shirts and military outfits, ingenuously alluded to Mussolini and fascism. In her director’s note, Jessica Kubzansky writes: “I chose to set the play today because it has never felt more immediate.” The insightful helmer also references “Tweets” and “hate crimes.”

Is the Caucasian Iago’s (Michael Manuel) treacherous turning of the Black Othello (Wayne T. Carr) against the honey color-haired, “alabaster”-skinned Venetian upper cruster Desdemona (Angela Gulner) a hate crime? Othello—a Moor (a North African, presumably Muslim) whose courage in combat and military prowess on behalf of Venice’s city-state has led the Venetian ruling class to promote the nonwhite outsider to high-ranking positions of power—is referred to with racial slurs. The disreputable dolt Roderigo (played with Jeremy Rabb’s usual comic panache) refers to Othello as “thick lips” and “an old black ram.”

During ANW’s after-party Bonita Friedericy, who portrayed Desdemona’s parent, told me she believed her character Brabantia’s opposition to the marriage between her white daughter and the Moor in this production was based largely on racial grounds. She pointed out that in Shakespeare’s original, in addition to the ethnic divide there was also a big age difference between Othello, who was supposed to be 50, and Desdemona, aged 16. Carr and Gulner, however, are much closer in age, so this removes a—shall we say—R. Kelly factor from an already fraught tragedy. (The astute Friedericy also pointed out that in Shakespeare’s script Brabantia was Des’s dad.)

Iago’s motivation to commit his most despicable act of treason against his comrade-in-arms, friend and—since Othello was a general—the state is truly chilling. This being a tragedy of literally Shakespearean proportions that sets off a whole chain of calamities, what makes that ticking time bomb Iago tick is arguably the key to this whole story. Othello’s passing over of his longtime battlefield brother for promotion by appointing Cassio (Brian Henderson) his lieutenant certainly fueled Iago’s wrath and scheming, which would devastate both men. But one can speculate that enraged Iago also lusted after Desdemona, who shared a bed with a general who’d slighted him and also happened to be Black.

The whole issue of interracial sex, especially between Black males and blonde females, contains so much sexual frisson and anxiety that while the archetypal Othello may be the first great work of dramatic art to explore it, this tension-filled theme reared its proverbially ugly head 300 years after Will put quill to paper in D.W. Griffith’s silent screen Civil War/Reconstruction-era epic The Birth of a Nation. The notion of Black men having intercourse with Southern blonde belles is so troubling that the Ku Klux Klan literally rides to the rescue of Aryan Lillian Gish’s maidenhead in the grand finale of the most racist movie ever made. Indeed, the sexually charged subject of Black male-white female relations returns to the cinema in a new 2019 screen adaptation of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son, recently viewed at the Pan African Film Festival.

Was William Shakespeare racist?

At the reception following ANW’s premiere I asked one of the L.A. stage’s most preeminent Shakespearean experts, Alan Blumenfeld, who portrayed Shylock in Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum’s 2017 mounting of the Bard’s other most ethnically-charged play, The Merchant of Venicewhat the playwright’s racial beliefs were. The erudite actor replied that Shakespeare was familiar with a racist theory prevalent during the Elizabethan era that nonwhites were “mud people.”

Asked what Shakespeare’s intent was in Othello, Carr told me during the after-party, “He was holding up a mirror to life to show us our traits, our faults, our inner workings that send us down the rabbit hole…. I can’t say if he was racist or not. Shakespeare gave Othello and Shylock very beautiful, very human speeches. It says a lot that he gave them these speeches.”

(But then again, Hamlet’s Polonius was a dope, yet this shmendrik speaks peerless pearls of wisdom to his son: “To thine own self be true….”)

Given the current outrage regarding whites in blackface I asked Carr what he thought of Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier playing Othello in dark makeup in 1951 and 1965 screen versions. “Olivier was a brilliant actor and of course he’d want to play this part. He’d try to be African…. It’s up to people to assess” what their racial motivations are. “We all have our reasons as actors,” Carr mused.

By the way, Welles’s Othello is breathtakingly, stunningly visual, with at least the first third shot on location in postwar Venice. Three years in the making, this masterpiece went on to win what is now called the Grand Prix at Cannes—but of course he couldn’t find a distributor to release his classic in America! In any case, given the current climate, we have to ask this question: Must we burn Welles’s and Olivier’s Othellos?

A farrago of mendacity

In her director’s note Kubzansky writes that re-examining “Shakespeare’s greatest obfuscator, Iago, in a post-truth world feels imperative.” She also refers to “alternate facts,” and one could add “fake news” and “enemies of the people” to Trump’s endless farrago of mendacity. Like Iago, Trump’s titanic treachery and litany of lies turn friends against friends, husbands against wives.

Indeed, Othello and Desdemona aren’t the only spouses who turn on each other. Emilia, Iago’s own wife and Desdemona’s gal pal, also follows suit. Once the full realization of her husband’s traitorous, deadly deceit dawns upon Emilia, she becomes Iago’s sworn mortal enemy.

Kubzansky deftly directs her ensemble, but for my ducats and florins, Tania Verafield as Emilia delivers this production’s standout performance. I’m no Method actor, but perhaps having personally experienced the most heinous villainy imaginable, Ms. Verafield draws upon those sense memories to render a heartbreaking, harrowing performance by someone who has been face-to-face with the most unspeakably vile evil on the face of the Earth. This is the young Mexican-American/Caucasian actor’s greatest role I’ve ever seen her incarnate yet. (Fans of superb acting can also see her reprise her role as Lizzie Lightning March 7-17 in For the Love Of (Or, The Roller Derby Play) as part of the Kirk Douglas Theatre’s “Block Party,” which presents encore productions from outstanding L.A. intimate theatre companies.)

Scenic designer Frederica Nascimento’s set on ANW’s thrust stage is minimalist and undistinguished. In the denouement, as with a number of Shakespeare’s dramas involving royal families and ruling classes such as Hamlet, justice is served when a just, fair survivor of the elite class assumes command. The bloodbath in Othello’s grand finale may remind Game of Thrones aficionados of the Red Wedding episode, as Desdemona the Groaner and other characters meet their fates. Kubzansky’s production has a truly slambang ending.

Othello runs in repertory with The Glass Menagerie and other plays through April 28 at A Noise Within, 3352 East Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, CA 91107. Free parking is in an adjacent garage. For exact times, dates and more info: (636) 356-3121 or


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.