Flipping Black and White

Here’s another one of our thought exercises; let’s see if it goes anywhere. The issue of racism is an interesting one in Othello. People think that it’s going to be a racist play, what with its black hero and all. But really, other than some fairly blatant racist commentary in the beginning, it’s not really about race at all, is it? We’re not led to believe that Othello killed his wife because he’s a black guy. Now, here’s my spin.  Imagine if Othello was white … and Iago was the black guy.  Keep everything else, plot-wise, as identical as you can.  Naturally, a bunch of the early, cruder commentary directed at Othello would have to be altered.  But the story could remain much the same. Except that now, Iago’s a black guy who was passed over for promotion by a white guy for a white guy.  How does that change him as a character? Is he still a villain? I know that Patrick Stewart was involved in a completely race-reversed Othello, where he played a white Othello to an otherwise all-black cast.  That tells a different story.  I’m wondering what would happen if race played a role in the development of the villain rather than the hero.

12 thoughts on “Flipping Black and White

  1. I heard about the Patrick Stewart race-switched Othello. Apparently Othello and Bianca were white, and the rest of the cast was black. It was set in a fictionalized 20th century African country. It would have been interesting to see.

    To me, race-related novelty casting pigeon-holes the play somewhat, making it "the race play" when it's about so much more. That said, a production going up now at the Santa Cruz Shakespeare festival has a black Cassio, which is intriguing to me. I didn't see the play, just the program, so it's hard to tell how that casting effects the production. If Iago is passed over for a black man, does it make him more motivated by racism? Is Othello's jealousy effected by the fact the supposed interloper is also black? I don't know the answers, but these are intriguing questions.

  2. I have a black female friend who says she would love to play Iago (in a modernized production, I assume). She wants to play up the cultural angle of how a lot of black women resent black men who marry white women.

    I once heard of a production where both Othello and Iago were cast as black men, which was supposedly fantastic.

  3. Of course he's still a 'villain'; with a somewhat different controlling agenda, for which he thinks deception and manipulation, no matter their results, unto someone's destruction, are warranted. The facets may play differently in some respects, but so many of them are of the same generic quality. The "Green-eyed Monster" wins again.

  4. I agree with Alexi. Too many times (and I would go further– to include not only the race issue) Shakespeare is pigeon-holed as far as message through 'innovative' or 'novelty' conceptualization.

  5. The goal, Alexi and JM, isn't to pigeonhole Othello as a racist play. It's to muck around with race in order to ask exactly what role race does play.

    You could well say "Make them all white" and remove race altogether, but even that would change the play, no?

    I dub it a thought exercise for a reason, I didn't really think of it as "novelty casting".

  6. Wait, what? That's not just a spot of racist commentary, that's a whole freakin' foundation you're talking about. It's not "BLAH BLAH BLACK MAN BLACK MAN BLACK MAN" for the whole play, that would be ridiculous (and wouldn't scan), but it would be a DRASTICALLY different play if Othello were white. Brabantio would probably be pleased and proud to marry his daughter to such a fine upstanding white general, and so wouldn't end up planting the initial seed of "Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see:/She has deceived her father, and may thee" which ultimately – thanks to Iago – sprouted into a great big oak tree of green-eyed monsterdom and death.

    Instead of wondering what the play would be like if Othello and Iago switched skin colours, you'd probably be better off comparing Iago with Aaron from Titus Andronicus. Sure, they have some fundamental differences in style, but in other ways, they're really not that dissimilar either.

  7. JM: You're right, I meant "race play" as in "a play primarily focused on issues of race." (As a side note, I'm a guy. I know my name's confusing.) I think race and racism are important components to the play, but not its key issues. After all, on the early modern stage, race and gender were both performative. Everyone in the show (Othello, Iago, Brabantio, Desdemona) was played by a white man.

    Duane: I was actually in a production with all white actors (not by design really, that was just who auditioned) but I'd be hard pressed to say how it effected the show, as our Othello was a terrible actor and garbled many of his lines.

    Weez: I agree that Brabantio's racism has a significant impact on the play. But that could be retained in a race-reversed show, no? Aaron and Iago is an interesting comparison. I think Aaron (though badass to the nth degree) is a fairly flat character. I've always compared him unfavorably with Othello (both are black warriors who find themselves in a white culture) because compared to Othello's complexity Aaron reads as more of an exotic bogeyman.

  8. Alexi didn't say "racist play". She said "the race play". Unless I'm misreading it, although racism might enter into it, to me her statement implies more of a focus on particular thematic subject matter via its affect on the through-line of the play; "racist play" something else.

    I think we'd agree that race obviously plays a role as Shakespeare wrote it.
    If the question we're attempting to answer is simply, "…exactly what role race does play.?",is there an answer to what's actually there first, before complicating the issue? How important is it, and what influences does it have–what does it say– as it stands?
    But maybe you've already brought that as a topic and you're saying something
    else more involved and I'm not aware of it. If so…in the infamous words of
    SNL's Rosanne Rosannadanna…"oh, then…never mind." 🙂

  9. Alexi: oh, of course it could be retained in a race-reversed show, but we're not reversing the whole show, just Othello and Iago. Mind you, I guess you could still see Brabantio ticked off enough to deliver his Couplet O' Doom. After all, if Desdemona sneaks out to marry a white man, she's still sneaking out and deceiving her father.

    I think Aaron's main problem is that Titus was such an early play. Had he come later in Bill's writing career, he could've been a wholly different (but still totally awesomely evil) man. Hey, maybe we should Wicked up Aaron. 😉

  10. Alexi: Whoops–sorry.
    I know a teacher of voice/performance in Australia, first name Flloyd–and she's not a guy. Interestingly, she tells me issues of gender and naming, "Way Down Under" don't matter like they do here. I attempted to bring up something about "Fortune's Favors", but she politely ignored my pitiful stab at the witticism. 🙂
    Again, my apologies. –JM

  11. Black actors are traditionally cast as villains and not heroes. I understand your idea, but it’s honestly reinforcing bad/negative racial stereotypes.

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