It has been a good year to live in Chicago if you are a fan of Shakespeare’s Othello. With productions by The Hamburg Ballet at The Harris Theater, on Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s main stage and now Othello: The Remix in Chicago Shakespeare Theater Upstairs, it has also been a good year if you, like me, regret that Othello has become the standard bearer for the issue of race in Shakespeare. While the Hamburg Ballet foregrounded race in bold ways, Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production directed by Jonathan Munby and its production of Othello: The Remix have eschewed issues of race each in their own ways. While I am discussing Othello: The Remix in what follows, I’ll point you to reviews by my City Desk colleagues Rebecca Fall and Clark Hulse if you would like to learn more about and compare these other productions.
I want to be clear, however: something like what we mean today by race is at play or in the process of emerging for the first time in Shakespeare’s tragedy. But what the play really does, for me, is coordinate issues of race, gender, eroticism, ambition, friendship and love around a searing, arc-welding skepticism about the possibility of truly knowing another person. And the catalyst that sets all these issues swirling in this epistemological nightmare is the clash of three great personalities: Iago, Othello and Desdemona. Desdemona has a form of dedication that most audiences today would find grotesque, if not supra-human. Othello is a Moor in a white man’s world, with a brutal past and a decisive mind. Iago is a ferocious, improvisatory and patient enemy of the possibility of certainty. Race is but one key weapon that Iago has at hand in a war he wages ultimately even on himself (he makes no real attempt worthy of his intelligence to “get away with it” at the end).
The Q Brothers’ Othello: The Remix is a kind of Paul’s Boutique of the dynamic I have just described (the analogy is deliberate: GQ, the Brother Q playing Iago, has a line that nods at their Beastie Boys-esque style). They have sampled, remixed, alluded to, filled out, and resituated Othello into something it seems inadequate to call an “adaptation.” Playing in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater Upstairs, the stage is relatively bare, with a raised scaffolding area in back, mostly to house the DJ and his mixing table. The all-male cast of four (plus the DJ) plays multiple parts, including female roles, often changing costumes on stage rapidly between distinctly fleshed out—even when cartoonish—characterizations. The two female characters we see acted on stage are Jackson Doran’s Emilia and JQ’s Bianca. Especially JQ’s Bianca is played mostly for comic relief. Postell Pringle, who plays Othello, is the least doubled with another character (a standout exception being a brief turn as a backup singer for Emilia). The show as a whole is a kind of hip hop musical, nearly all of it in rhyming lines that transition from more dialog-like moments to actual set-piece musical and dance numbers.
The Q Brothers have resituated the play’s plot within America’s hip hop industry. Othello is a leading hip hop star, and as they prepare to set out on tour, Cassio is chosen to be the opener for Othello. This leaves Iago to be the “opener for the opener.” In the most striking decision in relation to the female characters in this production, Desdemona is not personated on stage but rather is merely represented as a singing voice drifting in from the theater’s speakers. In their first scene “together,” Othello is mixing a song with Desdemona, visibly transfixed, his gaze aloft over the audience’s heads as her voice drifts in both melodious and inarticulate. Desdemona is never given any actual words to speak. We see Othello offer her a gold chain, taking the place of Shakespeare’s malevolent handkerchief, and of course this comes back in the end to act as the device by which he strangles (an invisible) Desdemona.
At first blush, a show in which women are either caricatured in a comic mode or pushed offstage into a distilled singing voice will and has struck some as problematic, to say the least. What I saw was a production that foregrounded the danger of Othello’s reductive apotheosis of Desdemona—he’s visibly controlling if also wonderstruck in their mixing session, for example. And the show ends with a song about how only love will save us. The laughable incongruousness here seemed to me deliberate: Iago’s surgical strike against certainty has functioned precisely to defeat love. And because our view of “love” is so weighted towards Othello’s perspective here, the asymmetry of what “love” is for him stands out that much more (c.f. in Shakespeare: “She loved me for the dangers I had passed, / and I loved her that she did pity them). So we’re left to wonder if we can be certain we ever really saw love on stage in the first place.
Finally, by setting their version in the hip hop industry, the Q Brothers have not eschewed so much as inverted the role of race in their production. Cassio and Iago are white men in an entertainment industry “coded” as black in popular culture. Othello becomes the spectacle of an insider in this sense. This makes GQ’s Iago’s hatred for the Moor that much more defined by alienation and self-loathing, in a way that other productions are rarely able to achieve. But it also drains some of the overt stakes and tension from Othello’s being encoded in Shakespeare’s version as an “other.” The military in Shakespeare’s Venice represents a unique route a Moor can follow to attain high social status. In Shakespeare’s representation of the army’s personnel (which includes Cassio and Iago), Othello stands out as being black in an institution encoded as white. This is not the same dynamic in Othello: The Remix. That in itself is not a problem, but it does point up how one kind of obvious tension surrounding Othello in the original is missing here. Given how smart the Q Brother’s production is, then, maybe this should leave audiences with the question of whether that tension was merely lost in the mix or transposed somewhere else in this Paul’s Boutique of Shakespeare adaptations. I would suggest that one of Othello: The Remix’s main aims is to ask rather than answer the question of where this tension goes in America’s music industry.
Casey Caldwell is a doctoral candidate in English at Northwestern University, where he specializes in the ontology and sexuality of money in early modern drama and intellectual texts. He holds his MFA in Shakespeare and performance, with a concentration on directing, from Mary Baldwin College, an MA in philosophy from University of Auckland, and a BA in philosophy from University of Texas at Austin.