Seeing a Black Soul

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In the company of some actors who happen to be of African and Caribbean heritage, I was once involved in a conversation about doing work inspired by Shakespeare’s Othello. We were in Stratford upon Avon, so obviously it made sense to be discussing matters pertaining to the Bard and different ways of telling that particular story. An older actor, whose work I have a lot of respect for, told us “Whatever you do, don’t mock that character. It’s the only leading role Shakespeare wrote for us (meaning black performers) in the canon.”

Nowadays, many companies are wary of staging productions of Othello with actors who are not black in the central role. I am aware of a production that experimented with a photo negative aesthetic – in other words, Othello was played by a white man and the rest of the cast was black, but that idea hasn’t been explored at length.

I always get a queasy feeling when I remember seeing footage of Laurence Olivier playing Othello in a film. According to some anecdotes, he spent time in some parts of South London reputed for being densely populated with black people. He also apparently drew some inspiration from observing Kwame Nkrumah in his heyday, but none of this came across in the strange character portrayal that I saw.

In another conversation that was provoked by seeing Olivier in blackface, a friend and I agreed that most stories told about people of African descent by artists of other races and heritages tend to dehumanise us.

Therefore, my questions for black artists are as follows: Once we have learnt our crafts in the performing traditions of wherever we find ourselves, should we simply accept the circumstances and continue to reinforce these dehumanising notions? Or do we need to take some responsibility for setting the record straight for ourselves and others?