Othello & Me

Friends, we interrupt this scroll-a-thon to talk about racism. If you are white and fragile, read this knowing you may recognize yourself. It’s about 3 minutes long. Get a cup of tea. Deep breath. Ready? Okay.  

I played Othello this past summer. For those not familiar with the play, Shakespeare wrote about a black man in a white world who becomes a general because of his outstanding abilities. Then he promotes a white friend, Cassio, and marries a much younger white woman, Desdemona. This angers his white sargeant, Iago, because Iago wanted the promotion & the white woman and he decides to destroy Othello. Turns out that this is really easy: all Iago has to do is make Othello question himself & his worth and the tragedy all falls into place.  

Now, I have been playing Othello as a woman so lesbian Othello has one more barrier to break down for our sophisticated audiences in Portland. But playing Othello, standing before the very white senate (the audience), having to prove to them how Desdemona could possibly be in love with the likes of me without some sort of witchcraft or drugs, saying those words each performance, hurts my actual heart. The stakes are high in the play and Shakespeare has Othello tell an extraordinary life story that ends with:

She lov’d me for the dangers I had past, 
And I lov’d her, that she did pitty them. 
This onely is the witch-craft I have us'd. 

Each performance, listening to the wonderful actors playing Iago as they convince me that my brand new wife is cheating on me (because, of course she is!) with the younger white man in front of her (because of course she is!), rips my heart out in context and also after the curtain as I think about how often in the past, my own friends have done the same thing and sometimes it was true. 

In the text of the play, after Othello has honor-killed Desdemona only to discover that these tales of her infidelity were all lies, I speak Shakespeare’s words of horror & grief & beg: 

When you shall these unluckie deeds relate, 
Speake of me, as I am. Nothing extenuate, 
 Nor set downe ought in malice. 
 Then must you speake, 
Of one that lov’d not wisely, but too well 

Then, as is done in Shakespeare, I stab myself. I, the actor, cry & die inside, lying on the ground, feeling the pain of the realization that I just made the white people’s fears all come true. 

The story is a tragedy and it moves audiences as tragedies do. Then they go home. My personal tragedy is I live Othello’s struggle everyday as a butch woman of color. I mean, I’m not gonna stab myself over this, y’all. But there are white people in this town who think I was hired as an Artistic Director of the Shakespeare company I work with because that company wants better optics so they put a black lesbian up there as window dressing. Those people don’t pay attention to my undergraduate degree, my conservatory degree, my 40+ years as a professional actor and my 25+ years as a writer and acting teacher. They just see a lesbian of color jumping ahead of them in line. When I  passionately disagree with a white woman colleague’s opinion on a black actor’s work in a specifically black role, she doesn’t see a fellow professional speaking to her in artistic disagreement. She sees a big black dyke attacking her. When I demand wheelchair accessibility with a theatre organization and a white woman calls me a bully and a white man explains elementary ADA rules to me, they don’t see a knowledgeable person using her able-bodied voice to fight for social justice. They see my brown skin and immediately assume I can’t possibly know as much as they do. These are not evil people. These are not cross-burning people. These are everyday white people whose racism, heterosexism, and sexism is showing in their words and actions. 

If I did any of the aforementioned things as a white man, I wouldn’t be telling this story because there would be no story to tell. Those white people would just  assume my knowledge, my skills & my qualifications and go on with their day. But my big black lesbian self does these things and they become acts of a loud-mouthed, disrespectful, uppity bitch and that is all. The argument and its soundness falls away; only the feared image remains. 

Y’all, Jackie Robinson’s action was not to courageously break the color bar: he just played outstanding baseball while black. “Breaking the color bar” was placed upon his action of playing outstanding baseball by the racism of the time. Playing Othello has been an artistic reminder that no matter how talented, how skilled, how knowledgeable or how qualified I am in any given situation, white people will always see my blackness, my queerness, my womanness (in that order) before and often exclusive to any other aspect of my being. They will always first assume my inferiority in whatever the subject of the moment is unless they consciously open their vision. This is reality. The daily questioning of me and my worth is de rigueur in 2018 in Portland Oregon. 

Ally friends, your job is to notice when that happens (first in yourselves, then in others) and call it out for us. Especially when we are not in the room. This is a very helpful “do” in answer to “what can I do.” One day, it will not be necessary, even in the whitest city in America. But for now, it is. This has been a public service announcement. We now return to cute kitty pics and holiday fun.