The Othello Project (1995)
|The Othello Project with Nigel Shawn Williams as Othello|
Rod Carley's innovative adaptation of The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice fits into a particular mode of adaptive dramaturgy in which transposed settings and contextual shifts produce powerful new ways of seeing a play. In doing so, dramatic changes to the actual written script (involving wholesale rewritings of large portions o f the play) are not necessarily required to achieve the desired adaptive effect. The Othello Project resituates context in a strikingly effective way, contemporizing the original Shakespearean setting via its transposition to the American South during the civil rights struggles of the sixties––the play is set in Cypress (as opposed to Cyprus and Venice), Mississippi and the surrounding countryside in June, 1964. As such, the adaptation also performs a particular ideological function that links Shakespearean contexts with the struggle for human rights and social justice that is at the heart of Carley's adaptive reading of Othello.
Originally workshopped at the George Brown Theatre School (April 1994) and then at the Equity Showcase (May 1995), the play was premiered by Walking Shadow Theatre at the Ford Centre for the Performing Arts Studio Theatre (Toronto, December 7-23, 1995). The play was deliberately pitched as a "retelling" of Othello that takes place during the "height of the civil rights movement. The year is 1964 and Mississippi is ablaze with racial unrest. Set against this backdrop The Othello Project takes on frightening and immediate relevance. Othello is the leader of a Northern F.B.I. team investigating reports of racial violence in the Klan-dominated town of Cypress, Mississippi. When Iago, his trusted ally, is overlooked for a job promotion, Iago's dashed hopes turn to revenge as he plots Othello's downfall. Using the Mississippi environment to his advantage, Iago preys on Othello's hidden doubts and paranoia. Convinced that his wife, Desdemona, has been unfaithfull, Othello's obsessive jealousy leads to a tragic trail of murder and suicide" (Press release, CASP files, Nov. 7, 1995).
Critical reception of the play as an adaptation has been strong. Globe and Mail theatre critic, Kate Taylor, for example, remarked that "If there is a reason to attempt yet another contemporary update of a Shakespearean tragedy, it is precisely this: to draw not simply reverential attention, but a gasp of anger or amazement" ("Othello in South a contemporary touchstone" Globe and Mail: C1). Taylor goes on to suggest that "the real test of any updated Shakespearean production is not whether it provides clever parallels to delight the dilettante, but rather whether it truly makes us see the play anew. In this Carley succeeds marvellously well … (ibid.). Carley's attention to social justice issues in The Othello Project thus proved a canny way of reconfiguring Othello for audiences attuned to such issues. But, and this is where adaptations sometimes shed interesting light on their sources, the revision also points to a radical re-reading of the source text that is always already implicit in it. Taylor comments that "At one level, Othello is always a play about how human kindness and love, personified by Desdemona, are overcome by man's base nature, personified by Iago. By placing Othello in a racist political context so quickly recognizable as one where baser instincts often triumph, Carley heaves that good-versus-evil stuff off the page and into our laps" (ibid.). The crucial point to remember here is that Othello has always been in a racist political context––one in which that context has largely remained implicit to or effaced from the play's interpretations.
The play takes its revamped title from the Mississippi Summer Project that culminated in the famous Mississippi Burning Trial in which three civil rights workers, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, were murdered in Neshoba County, Mississippi by members of the KKK. The Mississippi Summer Project was "an effort that would bring hundreds of college-age volunteers to 'the most totalitarian state in the country' [and] was announced in April, 1964" (U. S. vs Cecil Price et al. "Mississippi Burning" Trial. 1967). The murders of the activists involved a deliberate targeting of human rights workers in Mississippi by law enforcement officers (who were also members of the KKK) and, as the following account of the findings of the jury reveals, justice was barely done:
"On the morning of October 20, 1967, the jury returned with its
verdict. The verdict on its face appears to be the result of a compromise.
Seven defendants, mostly from Lauderdale County, were convicted. The
list of convicted men included Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, Imperial
Wizard [of the KKK] Sam Bowers, trigger man Wayne Roberts, Jimmy Snowden,
Billey Wayne Posey, and Horace Barnett. Eight men, mostly from Neshoba
County, were acquitted, including Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, burial site
owner Olen Burrage, and Exalted Cyclops Frank Herndon. In three cases,
including that of Edgar Ray Killen, the jury was unable to reach a verdict
to articles about jury deliberations]. The convictions in the case
represented the first ever convictions in Mississippi for the killing
of a civil rights worker. The New York Times called the verdict 'a measure
of the quiet revolution that is taking place in southern attitudes.'
On December 29, Judge Cox imposed sentences. Roberts and Bowers got ten years, Posey and Price got six years, and the other three convicted defendants got four. Cox said of his sentences, 'They killed one nigger, one Jew, and a white man-- I gave them all what I thought they deserved.'" (The Mississippi Burning Trial)
In such a context, then, Carley's adaptation of Othello makes a powerful case for how Shakespearean contexts can be used to comment on contemporary issues of social justice. Othello has in Canadian contexts been used to address issues of race and integration, as Djanet Sears's powerful prequel to the play, Harlem Duet, amply demonstrates (and, in fact, Nigel Shawn Williams, played the lead male roles in both The Othello Project and Harlem Duet; click here to link to CASP's interview with Djanet Sears). That both plays have become touchstones for refocusing debate around issues of racism in Canada and the United States via adaptation in Canada indicates the degree to which the Shakespearean original anticipates the problem(s) of intercultural encounter generally. Further, that Shakespeare's play is perhaps the best known literary depiction of the circulation of African cultures in European contexts (for more on this see Diana Mafe's M.A. Project in the Essays and Documents section of the CASP site), reminds us of how important such adaptations can be in broadening the dialogue begun by Shakespeare.
CASP gratefully acknowledges Rod Carley's permission to publish his director's playscript to its website.