The voice of the unheard, in the world of Shakespeare, is unfurled in the Women’s Theatre Festival’s (WTF) new production of Othello. An ensemble of BIPOC all-women players, presents an explosive, visceral experience, as the creative team offers a new exploratory perspective of the age-old tale. This story, revamped for a modern time, pitches a new angle to offer an alternative view of covert racist tactics and how these political strategies are still inherent today.
Set at an elite all-female school, the characters examine the warlike strategy of competition in modern-day academia. Director JaMeeka D. Hollaway and Dramaturg Monet Noelle Marshall, make connections with Mfonsio Udofia’s modern verse translation, which feels new. On the one hand, Hollaway creates a world through the beauty of the Black experience as she layers music, fashion, and the comradery of being unapologetically Black. On the other hand, she also reveals the unmistakable pressures of Black excellence and the implication of envy and jealousy, which follows the success of the other. As Danyeal Geddie states in her bio, “Otherness is a critical element in Shakespeare’s Othello,” and how to be the other in centralized white spaces unmistakably harbors the horrible systems of oppression which is displayed in this piece.
From the beginning, the creative team helps audiences from different backgrounds contextualize the work by offering care packages and viewing options. As a viewer, I infer Holloway’s intent is to place the audience within the context of an awareness of where one might fall in this strategic war on race. This gesture helps to center and orient the observer in decoding the tactics of systemic racism. The audience is introduced to the multi-complexities of Black excellence, its social impact on those of color, and the interplay of false ally-ship, which is timely in the conversations around Black Lives Matter, and how the negative implication of these power dynamics affect the mental health of black and brown people. And with these tactics decoded, these intricacies can be discussed in conversation with a common language of how these elements show up in our day-to-day existence and what actions, if any, can be done to impact positive change for otherness in these social constructs where these dichotomies may present.
Aware of this work’s triggering effect, Monet Noelle Marshall, wisely uses her skills as an intimacy director to guide the audience in a series of relaxation techniques, which is part of WTF’s care package. For myself, an African American female, I found the breathing exercises to feel timely before being released into the denouement of Othello. This act of care on the part of the WTF creative team serves as an invitation to open the space of conversation to other theatre companies who wish to take on more diverse perspectives. It is a blueprint for others who wish to take responsibility for their audience’s care and protection and how doing so, might even ground the work for the viewer.
Masterfully mapped, what first begins as an innocent interplay of young drive and young love, the seed of Othello’s questionable mental state is fully realized after the intermission, as the audience is driven into the throes of a profoundly impactful and intuitive performance from the femmes of Othello. No one performance stands out, as the entire ensemble demonstrates the dynamic interweave of how each character affects one another.
An excellent piece that lands on the pulse of the country’s current collective conversation around racism also presents ahead of its time with the fun and witty use of technology. This piece inspires the re-evaluation of works through different lenses of the unheard, and may in fact revolutionize a new era in theater. The Queens of Othello rocked it out with stellar performances, gladly adding additional works to the regional cannon, putting North Carolina, once again, on the map for diverse and inclusive theatrical excellence.
Othello runs through April 17th. For more information, care packages, and viewing options, visit https://www.womenstheatrefestival.com/othello.