WITH ANY DUE REVERENCE TO SHAKESPEARE,
THERE IS PROBABLY A BETTER PIECE
OF THEATER TO BE DISCOVERED HERE,
AND ANY NUMBER OF BETTER WAYS TO GIVE
AND THE ART
THE JUSTICE THEY DESERVE.
A Search for the Untold Story of “The Moor of Venice.”
Why was he “The Moor of Venice” anyway? Was that what the Venetians called him? Was it a title of honor…or a slur? And how did it make him feel? What would it make him think…or do?
Untitled Othello is an adventure in theater-making that aspires to center the African-descended hero in the play of William Shakespeare’s that bears his name…or is it his name?
This exercise in creative justice, employing ensemble-based creative practices engaged in deep and sustained exploration of Shakespeare’s text, will seek to provide dimension to the title character of Shakespeare’s play by providing dimension to all of the characters that people the world wherein his story unfolds, thus revealing a plausible black hero’s journey that Shakespeare left us too few and also perhaps too many words to illustrate.
A collaborative supportive effort of Sacred Heart University’s The College of Arts and Sciences, The Department of Languages and Letters, The Department of Media and Performing Arts, The Theatre Arts Program, The School of Communication, Media and the Arts, The Department of Catholic Studies, and the Multicultural Center…
- You ain’t scratched the surface… 0:31
Looking for Iago...
We began this semester’s work in September without a core ensemble member to take the role of Iago. There have been several collaborators to pass through in the role since we began this work back in August of 2021. It is worth noting that the white male actor somewhere between the ages of 25 and 45 is the most working actor in the American entertainment industry. Iago is a heavy lift by any standards, and this process that we are evolving is unorthodox by every metric as well.
It is open-ended, mentally and emotionally arduous, and requires an entirely different sort of commitment than the actor most likely to be constantly hired elsewhere might want to make. While it has always been the intention of The Project to maintain an unchanging ensemble from beginning to whatever the end, thus evolving a formidable brain trust throughout the process, the vicissitudes of life and the indoctrinations and impositions of the American Theater Industrial Complex make our goals somewhat quixotic to say the least. However, such impediments sometimes also offer unexpected advantages. Working for the first week of our residency without a Iago in the room was like talking about the character and the actor behind their backs. We discovered a freedom to do what we wanted with him; ignore him, criticize him mercilessly without resistance, analyze his mental state, his intellectual capacity. With no deference being owed him because no deference was owed to an actor undertaking to portray him, awareness about who he might actual be in the world of the play began to emerge. Stripped of his evil genius status that has more or less held sway since white actors stopped feeling free to act the role of Othello unchallenged, Iago seems suddenly human again, which is to say petty and pathetic, frightened, egoistic, shaped to grasp advantage shamelessly wherever it is extended, and aided in his triumphs simply by a playwright—and an endless succession of theater-makers—who have allowed him access to an audience preconditioned and predisposed to believe that the world of the play is about him; ultimately his fans. Perhaps he is aided as well by the needs of other animals—within the world of the play AND within the world that produces the play—with whom he has established various symbioses, irrespective of his general repugnance…
Jessica Burr working with the ensemble and Sacred Heart students from the Untitled Shakespeare class
Women in Othello
The first Residency Week in 2023 at Sacred Heart focused on the roles of the women in Othello, who they are, and how they define the world where this particular tragedy unfolds. The week’s work coincided with a winter intersession course, Women in Othello. How successful we were in our efforts to dimensionalize the female characters of the play remains to be seen…but, of course, the effort isn’t over…
The women in Othello, those seen as well as those only spoken of, generate and shape energies and behaviors in the world of the play no less than any other of the human beings that Shakespeare has made more prominent. But we seek to know them all.
Several members of The Untitled Othello Project Ensemble (from left, Keith Hamilton Cobb, Terrell Donnell Sledge, Dr. David Sterling Brown, and Robert Manning, Jr.) along with composer, Anthony Davis (second from left) and ArtsEmerson Executive Director, David Howse (first on the right) on the stage at Boston’s Symphony Hall discussing Black creative expression and Anthony Davis work, You Have the Right to Remain Silent, March 11, 2023. The event was billed as “A Private Conversation in Public: The right to ‘remain’ silent vs the right to fully express.”
From a performative standpoint, Othello’s journey, and thus his play, can be no more plausible than he and the characters that conspire to compel his narrative are human. Animal nature, at its core can be grotesquely simple, and humans are animals. But combine it with the intricacies of psyche and you have a thing of infinite complexity that cannot be simply portrayed, particularly in a play where the machinations of many minds and hearts conspire to culminate in the tragic conclusion. To tease out the humanity from between the lines of an early modern text—even Shakespeare’s, who left us far more than any of his inferior contemporaries—cannot be accomplished in any 3 to 5 week rehearsal-to-stage production model. In fact, in this particular of Shakespeare’s plays, so often done and so seldom done justice, where the stakes are nothing less than the realistic depiction of love, hatred, mental illness and most important, black male integrity, public performance cannot be a concern at all. Rather we must seek to provide actors and their creative collaborators the privacy and the leisure to take deep, revelatory dives into all of their unflattering human nature with no pressure to create a stage-ready performance. Only in such a process of exploration and discovery can we hope to find the rendition of Shakespeare’s play that isn’t the Anglo-American recycling of the ridiculous Elizabethan tale turned racist trope told and embraced for generations.
- To interrogate white American Theater’s perpetually uninspired recycling of this play wherein the degrading and fantastical depiction of the black hero is not generally considered sufficiently amiss to list Othello among the works dubbed “problem plays.”
- To pursue and uphold the idea that by providing artists with emotional, financial, and communal support, we’re aiding in the creation of more nourishing art for the community at large. The goal of our art is altruistic, not economic.
- To disrupt standards and practices of theater-making that adhere to strict, production-based business models that place profit before creative integrity, thus financially benefiting the few while causing economic, physical and emotional harm to the disempowered artist, and providing us with little depth and relevance in the theater we make.
- To evolve American theater-making by exposing the next generation of theater artists to creative practices that expand their perspectives and ambitions with regard to the purpose-driven nature of their profession, and of theater itself.
- To approach our work as artists with the intention of giving scope and definition to the term, Creative Altruism, as a practice of social, economic, and restorative justice. Creators, meaning all who contribute to a creation, require care, agency and environments conducive to collaboration. Creative Altruism aims at re-imagining arts production free of the perpetual compromises imposed upon it by the American business model.
“Speaking of Shakespeare”
with Thomas Dabbs
A conversation ranging from The Untitled Othello Project to bell hooks, mental health, The Racial Imaginary Institute and more. Thomas Dabbs speaks with David Sterling Brown, PhD at Binghamton University. David is currently an ACLS/Mellon Scholars and Society Fellow in residence with The Racial Imaginary Institute, founded by Claudia Rankine, and in July 2022 he will join the faculty at Trinity College (USA), his undergraduate alma mater.
Listen to Dr. David Sterling Brown
“Speaking of Shakespeare” with host Thomas Dabbs
We should remove from the mouths of characters anything they say that we should be able just as readily to see them do. Life is not spoken, it’s lived. It is a series of actions. Speaking is an action, but you cannot speak a life.
Why is this project called “Untitled Othello?``
There are titles and there are titles… There is the title of Shakespeare’s play, The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. But considering who it is who has the vast majority of lines to speak in that play, it seems as though it might more accurately be titled The Triumph of Iago, the Genius Villain of Venice, with Othello, the character, as nothing more than prop or set piece. “The Moor of Venice” is of itself a title. Is it a title that the character wears proudly, or one that he is labeled with by others for reasons of their own irrespective of what he would prefer? And is he the only Moor in Venice? The title would tend to make it sound as if he is. And if he is not, how much more of a pejorative does the term become, like “the Chinaman” or “the Jew?” Then there are titles like “General.” Are there other “generals?” And if so, what power precisely does the office hold in the context either wherein it was written or now? Does the title, General, suggest some sort of societal position of status as well? Is Othello some form of nobleman, or just a hired soldier with no real power beyond his ability to prosecute military conflicts? Then there is his name, which is also a title. Is it his surname or his given name. Is it actually his name at all, or just what he was dubbed over time as his actual name was always too difficult to pronounce?
Rather than having to work under the burden of all these titles that define the character, the play, the world we live in, and all that is in it by the age-old assumptions they generate, I suggest we do away with all of them and start with nothing. I suggest we snatch the power out of the hands of the Titlers and claim it as our own.
Is this a production of Shakespeare's play, Othello?
NO! We are neither rehearsing nor producing a play at this time. A production of Shakespeare’s play Othello in America, under contemporary professional production standards, is never, nor can ever be, anything but a recycling of toxic ideas regarding a white societal relationship to Blackness perpetrated by a four hundred-year-old English playwright and embraced by generations of educators, scholars, and theater-makers, inadvertently or otherwise, to maintain structures of white supremacy. We are not attempting to mount a production of Othello, rather we are doing the deep and extensive exploratory work to ascertain whether there is a production of this dangerous play worth the consideration of ever mounting again. Untitled Othello is a diverse group of creators in process, not production.
Who is this project for?
Foremost, Untitled Othello is for us, the creators. We are a diverse collective of actors, directors, dramaturges and thinkers who all believe there is personal value in finding ways into this difficult play at this difficult historical moment which, if we are able, will serve as a template for the making of more socially just and thus more relevant American theater. After ourselves, Untitled Othello is for every theater-goer, every theater student and theater artist who never again wants to see another of Shakespeare’s plays stuffed through the sausage grinder of product-oriented American theater-making processes to be packaged and sold to the public, a mediocre, white-minded homogeneity masquerading as art.
Why this project/why now?
Because theater has ever influenced the flow of history.
Because if anything ever changes it is because we strive to change it.
Because, like everything else in the evolving American culture – which might just evolve itself to death before much longer – it is only in the very briefest and most recent of American history that any significant number of Black minds have been consulted on approaches to dealing with issues of racial bias, much less on this particular of the manifestations of racial bias, what theater should be made, how it should be made and who should be included in its making. This does not even begin to consider the cultural capital of Shakespeare and the death grip that the American theater elite continue to hold it in. There seems no better time to experiment with the possibility that we can explode all of this in our human-centered explorations and, if nothing else, create a new starting point when discussing whose art and perspectives matter.
How Can I Find Out More?
Thoughts & Philosophy
These reflections are meant to offer an understanding of not only project purpose, but perspective on why a project at all.
We began with the newest Arden edition. We assembled a cast of the nine core characters in the play and they read it. Then we reconfigured the cast, switched out some actors, repositioned others, and in another week or two we read through the play again. Then we did it again. In the end there were seven different cast configurations for seven different readings. Each time there were new energies, new dynamics, new discussions. Over the course of a couple of months we arrived at the cast that seemed to most organically come together. We’ll see. But I was thrilled not to be involved in some three-day casting session followed by some three-week rehearsal process. Perhaps for all of this time spent we’ll find nothing new, but we’ll at least know there’s probably nothing new to find.
That is the ensemble assembling in residence at partnering institution, optimally for a couple weeks at a time. That is a group of theater practitioners, educators, and teaching artist asking students and other interlocutors to consider how this play relates to the 21st century societal norms that have shaped their mindsets. Each new residency will look different, we suspect. The first one, at Sacred Heart University, was revelatory. Moving forward from there and finding resources and support to continue to freely and deeply engage around the Othello text, well, we’ll take it in just about any form it comes. It is the hope that every organization or institution coming to the table has a reason of their own for being there, and that we can shape our working presence to serve the needs of the host while also serving our own. The potential for discovery that a protracted theater-making process like ours will reveal can only be further served by interaction with students and scholars of diverse disciplines and interests who also would like to unpack the questions, “Is there any relevant theater here to make? Have we seen all there is to see of this old, overly lauded, endlessly defended argument of Othello? Is anything to be done with it, both the play AND the theater? Can we change in our practices? Can we grow through communication and human-centered processes? Can we stop creating tragedy after tragedy in the life we share by evolving new tools to help each other to the truth?” It is not the story of Othello that is a tragedy. It is our inability to question it deeply enough, and for long enough, and adamantly enough for the true tragedy to ever be revealed. We would like to exercise our mental and physical muscles, at the table and in the rehearsal studio, to struggle with all Othello represents. We’re here to work.
Keith Hamilton Cobb (Director) is an actor drawn mostly to the stage in his working life, but is also recognized for several unique character portrayals he has created for television. He is a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts with a BFA in acting. His award-winning play, American Moor (published by Methuen Drama), which explores the perspective of the African American male through the metaphor of Shakespeare’s Othello, ran off-Broadway at Cherry Lane Theatre in the fall of 2019. It is the winner of an Elliot Norton Award, an AUDELCO Award, two IRNE Awards, and is part of the permanent collection of the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Jessica Burr (Artistic Director: Blessed Unrest, Associate Director: Untitled Othello) has been honored with the 2019 Kennedy Center ACTF Commendation for Distinguished Leadership, First Prize at the 2016 Secondo Festival (Switzerland), the 2011 LPTW Lucille Lortel Award, and NY Innovative Theatre Awards including: Outstanding Production, Choreography/Movement, and Caffe Cino Fellowship Award among eight total nominations. She was a featured panelist in the 2016 Brave Summit, a forum of women leaders, experts, and scholars to drive cultural change. The founding artistic director of Blessed Unrest with whom she has directed and choreographed over 20 productions (14 world premieres), she directs, choreographs and teaches at theatres and universities around the world.
David Sterling Brown—a Shakespeare and premodern critical race studies scholar—is Assistant Professor of English at Trinity College (CT). His antiracist research, which centers on pedagogy and on how racial ideologies circulate in and beyond the early modern period, is published or forthcoming in numerous peer-reviewed and public venues such as Shakespeare Bulletin, Literature Compass, Radical Teacher, Shakespeare Studies, Hamlet: The State of Play, White People in Shakespeare and Los Angeles Review of Books. His forthcoming book projects, one of which is under contract with Cambridge University Press, examine how whiteness operates in Shakespearean drama. Through his current Mellon/ACLS Scholars and Society Fellowship, Dr. Brown has a residency with The Racial Imaginary Institute, founded by Claudia Rankine. A member of Phi Beta Kappa, Brown sits on the editorial boards of Shakespeare Bulletin and Shakespeare Survey; and he is an executive board member of the Race Before Race conference series. www.DavidSterlingBrown.com
Blessed Unrest is in its 20th season of generating original theatre in NYC and touring internationally. They create safe environments where dangerous things can happen, producing dynamic, disciplined, and exuberant new works for the stage with their culturally diverse ensemble. They teach their approach to physical and devised theatre at universities across the country. Among their awards are four New York Innovative Theatre Awards (twelve nominations) including the Cino Fellowship for Sustained Excellence, the LPTW Lucille Lortel Award, and first prize at the 2016 Secondo Theatre Festival (Switzerland). The company’s work has been praised for “magnetism and electricity” (TimeOut NY) and “physical ingenuity and visual artistry.”
As the second-largest independent Catholic university in New England, and one of the fastest-growing in the U.S., Sacred Heart University is a national leader in shaping higher education for the 21st century. SHU offers nearly 90 undergraduate, graduate, doctoral and certificate programs on its Fairfield, Conn., campus. Sacred Heart stands out from other Catholic institutions as it was established and led by laity. The contemporary Catholic university is rooted in the rich Catholic intellectual tradition and the liberal arts, and at the same time cultivates students to be forward thinkers who enact change—in their own lives, professions and in their communities. Sacred Heart is home to the award-winning, NPR-affiliated radio station, WSHU, a Division I athletics program and an impressive performing arts program that includes choir, band, dance and theatre.
Play On Shakespeare is a non-profit company promoting and creating contemporary modern translations of Shakespeare’s plays. Play On partners with artists and organizations across the globe to deliver and advocate for these translations through different channels, including theatrical productions, podcasts, publications, and film.
Play On Shakespeare is made possible through generous support of the Hitz Foundation.
Midnight Oil Collective is a Venture Studio that invests in creative-economy-based businesses and assets that are validated through our incubator and accelerator. MOC recognizes that artists lacking agency in producing their own work is the greatest market inefficiency in the arts and entertainment industry, and we are committed to providing the tools and resources for creators to act as their own producers. We help artists and creators build ventures that will create a world in which new, thoughtful, innovative content is always being produced, while working toward our vision of liberated creators liberating creation.