Race and actors

OK, so over the last couple of weeks I’ve been watching the various video versions of Othello, and have commented on the use of black-face (or brown-face in the case of Anthony Hopkins 1981 BBC version). And while the use of black-face I do find offensive, what about the idea of a white Othello?

How does this play that places race in the forefront change how we look at how we cast plays?

If you’ve listened to my play-by-play podcasts regarding production concepts and castings, you know I like the concept of so-called “color-blind casting”…Idris Elba and Taraji P. Henson as Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, for example. I know even the term “color-blind” can a hot-button, with the idea of being “blind” to color is failing to take into consideration what makes one who he or she is. So let me call it “diverse” casting instead, as what I really mean is what can the best actor (regardless of race) do with a role.

That’s not to say that race can’t play a part in “diverse casting.” in the Much Ado casting mentioned above, race has everything to do with the production concept: by setting the play in the post-Civil War north, Benedick returns to a primarily African-American community after fighting in the war, accompanied by the white Claudio, Pedro, and John. John’s motivation comes subtextually from fighting for the losing side, and Claudio’s jealousy and his and Pedro’s immediate casting aside of Hero can have a racial angle to it.

But I’ve already gone off-topic a bit. Back to the question at hand.

Can we have a white Othello? I’m not talking a white actor “playing” black or in black-face. I’m talking about a white Othello.

I’m not sure you can. At least not successfully.

Now first of all, for the purposes of this argument, I’m going to approach the play from the perspective of the time in which it was written. For the Elizabethans, “Moor” was less about religion, and more about geography and race, shorthand–if you will–for black. So for this discussion, I’m saying we’re talking about race, not religion (as I know there are white Muslims).

For me, there are obvious textual clues that point me in certain directions in casting. For example, the relative heights of Helena and Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I suppose you could go ironic and cast a taller Hermia, but then the jokes at the center of the play could become confusing to the first-time audience member.

Othello is referred to as a “black ram” (I.i.87), and to having “thick-lips” (I.i.65), and he refers to himself as “black” (III.iii.263). Could you cast a white actor and do a simple textual swap-out of “white” and “thin”? Possibly, but only if you set the play in a place where everyone else is of a different color and with thicker lips. So, let’s say you set the play in Africa or Asia. If you could set up the local population as being racist, I suppose you could do make the textual and casting change. It might even be a fascinating look at the concept of racism, especially with lines like Othello’s “Arise, black vengeance, from the hollow hell!” (III.iii.447), and Emilia’s to Othello: “O, the more angel she, and you the blacker devil!” (V.ii.131-2).

If it wasn’t for one thing.

(you knew there had to be that “one” thing with me, right?)

In a couple of cases, the very concept of black means less than virtuous, carries a negative connotation, the best example being Othello’s “My name, that was as fresh // As Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black // As mine own face” (III.iii.385-7). How do you get around that? I’m not sure you can. Do you just drop those references altogether? Not without losing some of the ethical grounding of the world of the play.

Could you do a white Othello?

Maybe, but I’m not sure it would work, at least not for the wider (whiter?) audience. Could it work if produced (not just set) in Africa?


2 Replies to “Race and actors”

  1. ‘Course it would. Theatre is about suspension of disbelief. Black Hamlet , Chinese Macbeth , white Othello…all good. And Shylock doesn’t have to be Jewish.

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