Whether you believe racism, a lack of good performances, or bad luck is the reason why no black actors were nominated for the Academy Awards this year, the #OscarsSoWhite campaign has reignited the discussion about diversity in the arts. Coincidentally, I recently saw the play Red Velvet (now showing at the Garrick Theatre in London’s West End), which tells the story of the racism faced by Ira Aldridge, the first black actor cast as Shakespeare’s Othello. Reflecting on Aldridge’s story and doing a bit of research on the history of Othello has revealed a number of paradoxes that shed light on the history of racism faced by black actors and inform the current diversity debate.
Paradox #1: The main character in Othello is a ‘Moor’ but no black actor was cast in the role until 1833.
No one can blame Shakespeare for not casting a black actor in the original production of Othello in 1604. At the time, there were very few people of colour living in England. The first person cast as Othello was Richard Burbage and no one knows whether he ‘blacked up’ for the part. However, the prestigious role would continue to be played by white actors in blackface for over 300 years, including Laurence Olivier and Michael Gambon in 1960s. Ironically, when Ira Aldridge, a black actor from the US, was cast in the role in 1833 as a stand-in, the show closed almost immediately because audiences and critics were uncomfortable with a black actor working alongside white actors, even though racial integration is a key part of the story of Othello. One journalist was particularly offended by Desdemona (Othello’s wife) being “pawed about on the stage by a black man.” Another said: “Owing to the shape of his lips, it is utterly impossible for him to pronounce English.” It wasn’t until 1930, close to 100 years later, that Paul Robeson, the celebrated US actor and activist, would play Othello again in a major London venue. He wasn’t chased off the stage this time, but some critics levelled what can only be seen as backhanded compliments: “By reason of his race, Mr. Robeson is able to surmount the difficulties which English actors generally find in the part” and “Mr. Robeson … comes from a race whose characteristic is to keep control of its passions only to a point, and after that point to throw control to the winds.” The black actor couldn’t win: either by reason of race he was too crude and unsophisticated to play the part or he was infinitely well-suited to the role because of his underlying racial barbarity. Acting talent was never part of the conversation.
Paradox #2: Just when black actors were starting to be cast as Othello, all of the play’s race and gender constructs were thrown out the window.
Over the past 20 years, some of our generation’s greatest black actors have play Othello – Lawrence Fishburne, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and James Earl Jones, to name a few. However, directors have started to become more daring with Othello, deconstructing the traditional race and gender constructs of the play. For example, in 1997, Patrick Stewart played Othello as a white man opposite a black Inago, turning the play on its head. In 2009, Susanne Wolff played Othello along with a female Desdemona in order to explore issues of sexuality. Othello the Moor has disappeared – he has no race or gender now. However, this is not a bad thing – roles originally intended for white males are being given to women and people of color. Denzel Washington has played the lead role in the Manchurian Candidate, Richard III and Marcus Brutus in Caesar. Actor Adrien Lester, who has played Othello and is currently playing Ira Aldridge in Red Velvet has said: “I believe we are moving towards a utopia where pretty much any actor can play anything – soon we’ll get to a point where the race and class and gender of the actor will not matter.”
Paradox #3: Shakespeare may have never met a person of color when he wrote Othello, but he wrote a story that explores issues of race and difference.
It is well established that Shakespeare wrote Othello based on Giraldi Cinthio’s short story Disdemona of Venice and the Moorish Captain. Thus, the concept of a ‘black’ protagonist was not exactly his idea. However, the fact that Shakespeare was attracted to a story in which a ‘black’ character is the victim and a ‘white’ character is the aggressor is ironic. At the time, black people were perceived as exotic ‘others’ from the African subcontinent or servants. Either way, the structure of Othello defies typical racial tropes, raising the question: Can only black writers write sympathetic stories about black people? Certainly, diversity of experience leads to a diversity in content. However, if Shakespeare could write a complex, sympathetic story involving people of different backgrounds and races in 1600, what stops contemporary writers of all races from doing the same? Red Velvet was written by Lolita Chakrbarti, a women of South East Asian descent. Good drama is good drama.
For me, the #OscarsSoWhite issue boils down to this: (a) judge actors based on talent, not race; (2) cast talented actors, regardless of race; (3) produce more stories, like Red Velvet, that reflect the experiences of the diverse communities we live in; and (4) ignore Hollywood awards shows.