A Genealogy of the Hogtown-Born Othello: Three decades of Toronto-generated Othello adaptations

Cultural inheritance: Canada’s Shakespeare Obsession

An Anglophone Québécois education endowed me with two myths that I have spent much of my university career untangling. The first is that Shakespeare was the pinnacle of literary excellence, and that was why, despite the millions of plays published since his death, he dominated the high school curriculum. The second myth was that the English language was stable, there was one correct English, and that was British English with its proclivity for extraneous u’s and words that ended in -re rather than -er. Unsurprisingly, the two myths were related, they both reinforced each other by promoting the notion that English literature and the English language were organized hierarchically; there were monolithic writers such as Shakespeare and proper ways of speaking that we should strive to emulate. In “Language Ideologies and the Consequences of Standardization” James Milroy argues that in widely used languages, such as English, there is a standard language ideology that distorts speakers’ attitudes towards language. Standard language speakers, like myself, develop a consciousness regarding the canonical form of the language, which is reinforced by so-called language authorities. These language authorities include literary figures such as Shakespeare, dictionaries and grammars.

According to Milroy, standard-language cultures such as Canada believe that “when there are two or more variants of some word or construction, only one of them can be right...[because] the process of standardization works by promoting invariance or uniformity in language structure” (531). Ironically, Shakespeare’s works are not uniform. The Bard even spelled his own name differently at different times; of his six surviving signatures Shakespeare had signed his name as Willm Shakp, William Shaksper, Wm Shaksp, William Shakspere, Willm Shakspere and By me William Shakspeare (Schoenbaum 109). At the centre of a language culture that idolizes a standard built upon literary figures such as Shakespeare there is an unstable foundation, for not only Shakespeare’s name was inconsistent, but so were his plays, which were published in numerous editions both during and after his lifetime.1

Certain Canadian accents are nearly indistinguishable from some American accents, but Canadian orthography demonstrate an allegiance to the Queen’s English, an allegiance that the Americans (thanks to Noah Webster’s reversionary dictionary) rejected through spelling reforms.2 Today, however, Canadian English is a blend between American and British orthographic conventions with little rhyme or reason as to why one spelling variant won over the other (Pratt 65). Trapped between a cultural empire (America) and the historical empire (Britain) Canada has had to carve out its own identity that acknowledges its history, but also establishes its autonomy from these two powers. One of the ways Canada has established cultural autonomy is through adapting and rewriting Shakespeare in a manner that addresses contemporary Canadian issues as well as Canada’s history. Just as Canadian English differs from British English, so do our adaptations of Shakespeare, for indigenous Canadian adaptations engage with our cultural inheritance in a manner that differs from American and British adaptations. However, Canada has not always been the creator of its own Shakespeare, from the eighteenth century until the mid-twentieth century Shakespeare’s plays were imported to Canada by British theatre companies that toured both Canada and the United States (Makaryk 12).

Denis Salter has noted that Canada’s relationship to colonialism is not a clear relationship of colonizer-colonized. Many factors have complicated Canada’s postcolonial condition “including its foundational position under the parent cultures of Britain and France, its constant struggle to define itself in opposition to the omnipresent dominance of the United States, its ongoing role as a coloniser of its own native peoples, and its economic position as a so-called First World nation” (5). Daniel Fischlin has observed that “Shakespearean sites of production have proliferated in Canada across multiple media, diverse ethnicities, and multiple ideologies,” and this proliferation is markedly indigenous to the country from which it has generated, for it engages with the postcolonial psyche in manner that differs from the U.S., which established autonomy from the British Empire, and from Britain, which has historically been the trans-Atlantic colonizer (7). Canada’s veneration of its British history has manifested not only in -our and -re spellings, and Shakespeare-heavy curricula, but also in our country’s theatre history. Canada’s first national theatre, established 1953, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, “was founded by a British director, used British actors, and was dedicated to the works of a British playwright, yet it was celebrated as the culmination of Canadian cultural maturity” (Knutson 10). Ellen MacKay avers that Shakespeare’s plays “initially substituted for a national dramatic literature that had yet to emerge, then set an impossible standard for it to achieve” (72). Contrary to MacKay’s assertion, the Shakespeare-steeped genesis of Canadian theatre, which supposedly set an impossible standard, did not limit Canadian productivity; instead, it encouraged its growth.

Daniel Fischlin acknowledges that there is a distinct difference between Canadian adaptations of Shakespeare and British adaptations, and although he gestures towards how Canadian Shakespeare tends to engage with issues of colonization in a way that British adaptations are less apt to do, there has not been any in-depth work that delves into the issue.3 Linda Burnette avers that “in their adaptations of Shakespeare, Canadian playwrights pay close attention to the marginalized characters in Shakespeare’s plays” (80). This, however, is true of many contemporary Shakespeare adaptations such as Paula Vogel’s Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief (an American play about Desdemona, Bianca and Emilia), Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (a British play that pushes Hamlet to the background, and instead focuses on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), and Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine (a surrealist German play that focuses on Ophelia’s tragedy). Adaptations that centre on the marginalized characters in Shakespeare’s plays are thus not specific to Canada. A comparative survey that details how Canadian adaptations differ from other international appropriations would be an excellent addition to the current discourse. However, perhaps a survey that aims to distil the essence of what constitutes Canadian Shakespeare would prove too difficult, for every Canadian group seems to use The Bard to further a different aim.

Anglophone Canadian playwrights are not the only Canadians to adapt The Bard. Some Quebeckers, such as Jean Gascon, appropriate Shakespeare to further a nationalist agenda because “doing so constitutes a subversive attack on Anglo-Canadian culture’s colonial debt to Shakespeare as a metonymy of British culture” (Fischlin 6). While First Nations playwrights, such as Daniel David, will adapt Shakespeare in order to “write back to the canon” in an effort to assert native rights to “cultural recognition” (6). Canada is a patchwork of nationalities, with laws in place (such as the 1988 Canadian Multiculturalism Act) that protect the polyphony of different voices that make up this nation. The glut of different Canadian identities is mirrored in the heterogeneous Shakespeare adaptations produced annually by Canadian playwrights.

In a Twentieth-Century Canadian Theatre lecture Cynthia Zimmerman affirmed that since the establishment of Stratford, sixty years ago, Canadian theatre has come into its own, noting that over the past year alone almost forty new Canadian plays were published, many of which are “extremely good” (Sept. 13, 2012). One subject of playwriting has so dominated Canadian play production that an entire project was established to study it: the Canadian fascination with Shakespeare. The Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project (CASP), established in 2004 by Daniel Fischlin, has in its database over 500 adaptations that run the gamut from classical high theatre to unorthodox appropriations of Shakespeare. CASP contains plays that date from pre-Confederation to the present, with new plays being added every year. Fischlin notes that while adaptation is not an essentially Canadian phenomenon, Shakespearean adaptations in Canada “reflect on what it means to be Canadian in a way that other adaptations in other national sites do not...Shakespearean adaptation is a highly telling mode of articulating national identity” (3). As noted earlier, different Canadian groups have adapted Shakespeare in different ways to promote specific agendas. Rather than look at how a specific agenda was furthered, this paper will trace the genealogy of Toronto-based adaptations of Othello across three decades in the hopes of comparing how the different adaptations are responding to changing Canadian, more specifically Toronto, realities and a changing relationship with Canada’s history. The three plays that this paper will engage with are Anne-Marie MacDonald’s Goodnight Desdemona (Good morning Juliet), Djanet Sears’s Harlem Duet and finally Joseph Jomo Pierre’s Shakespeare’s Nigga.

Goodnight Desdemona (Good morning Juliet)

Commissioned and produced for Nightwood Theatre in the spring of 1988, Goodnight Desdemona (Good morning Juliet) is a Bildungsroman-modelled play that follows the psychological growth of Constance Ledbelly, an assistant professor of Renaissance drama at Queen’s University. When the play opens Constance is presented as an exploited shell of a person. The products she consumes in the opening scene underscore her lack of character depth: Velveeta cheese, Coors Light beer and Player’s Extra Light cigarettes; all three substances are diluted shadows of the products they are supposed to taste like, just as Constance is a shadow of the person she will become by the play’s conclusion. Constance’s career has been stymied by Professor Claude Night. While Night furthers his own career by exploiting Constance as his ghostwriter, he takes pleasure in diminishing her scholastic efforts. 

Constance’s research is centred on the un-deciphered Gustav Manuscript, which she believes, “when finally decoded, will prove the prior existence of two comedies by an unknown author; comedies that Shakespeare plundered and made over into ersatz tragedies” (397). Night belittles her scholarly efforts, and tells her that she is quickly becoming an academic “laughing stock” (398).

An imbalanced power dynamic is established between Constance and Night, for although the two are described as being the same age, Constance refers to Night by his full title, “Professor Night,” and as “sir,” while Night patronizes Constance, calling her a “titmouse,” his “pet,” and an “old maid” with “an interesting little mind” (397-400). Constance’s lack of fortitude is also evident in her interactions with the university students. Constance allows Jill/Julie to submit her paper a week late without reproaching her (despite the fact that her student is lying about the extension Constance supposedly gave her). Furthermore, Jill/Julie does not address Constance as a professor; instead, she calls her “Miss Ledbelly,” rather than Professor Ledbelly (395). Shortly after Jill/Julie leaves another student, Ramona, berates Constance for drinking a Coors Light beer because it “is part of the right-wing infrastructure that has brought this hemisphere to its knees” (396). Rather than defend her choice of drink Constance apologizes to Ramona and claims that the beer “was a gift” (396). Although the academy has come to know of Constance only as an eccentric who has thus far failed to finish her doctorate, both the audience and Night are aware that she is in fact a talented academic whose “customarily dizzifying standard” of work, which she employs on behalf of Night to “destroy” other academics, is why Night is offered a prestigious position at Oxford and promoted to full professor (399). A promotion that she knows is owed to her, but rather than confront Night, Constance congratulates him only to delve into a self-pitying monologue once Night has left her office. Ultimately, Constance is presented as being stuck in a static state, unable to advance her career and obtain her doctorate. Her refusal to let go of the past manifests in her technophobia (she refuses to learn how to type), as well as the nostalgic mementos of childhood that she clings to: her Brown Owl wings, her appendix (which was removed 21 years ago in the “summer of love”, 1967), and a feather from her dead parakeet, Laurel.

After Constance’s self-pitying monologue, she is magically transported into the Shakespearean worlds of Romeo and Juliet and Othello. It is while navigating Shakespeare’s plays that Constance learns how to be an assertive agent that can propel her life forward, rather than a submissive object suffering from life stasis. Constance obstructs Iago’s psychological poisoning of Othello, she disarms Tybalt by endowing him with the knowledge that Romeo is his cousin-in-law, and thus stops the chain of events that would have lead to Mercutio’s death. Within the alternative reality of the plays Constance is also no longer positioned as a sexless “old maid,” but an object of desire that is sought after by both women (Juliet) and men (Romeo), and respected by figures of high prestige (Othello) as an equal and a confidant.

Juliet and Desdemona are presented as hyperbolic in their drives: Desdemona is too aggressive and Juliet too driven by her sexual impulses. Their defining characteristics are made to seem even more hyperbolic in contrast to Constance whose sexuality is uncharted and who is so timid that even her students bully her. It is through interacting with Juliet and Desdemona that Constance begins to colour in the aspects of her psychological map that have thus far been left blank. In Constance’s first monologue about Night’s exploitation of her, she does not imagine taking action to remedy the situation. In this first fantasy Constance dies a penniless pencil vendor, only to be identified after her death and awarded her doctorate posthumously. Constance is so submissive before she delves into the world of Shakespeare’s plays that even in her fantasies she fails to assert that she has a “noble mind”, she passively hopes someone else will—after her death—simply stumble onto the knowledge that she was an academic prodigy (400). After meeting Desdemona, who is “gullible and violent” and not at all submissive and delicate, Constance is finally able to express her rage. In her second

monologue about Night, Constance no longer deifies her exploiter, but imagines cleaving his “two typing fingers from/ His guilty hands” and wrapping them in a box of chocolates to be presented to Ramona (411). Similarly, Constance’s encounter with Juliet, who tries to seduce Constance, allows Constance to explore her suppressed sexuality. From Juliet’s perspective, Constance is not an “old maid” (as she is in Night’s eyes), but an object of desire. It is only after recognizing that she is the author of her own story that Constance is finally able to decipher the Gustav manuscript, which reads, “one plus two is one not three” (430). The equation that the manuscript refers to is Constance, plus Juliet, plus Desdemona results in one fully flushed out person that is able to take control of her own story.

Shelley Scott, Marianne Novy and Marta Dvorak all discuss how the Goodnight Desdemona (Good morning Juliet) engages in dismantling heteronormative gender roles, but what seems to be lacking from the general discourse, at least I discovered a lacuna within the discussion of the topic, is the play’s treatment of race. Ann-Marie MacDonald effaces Othello’s race, and in the first casting of the play all the actors cast were caucasian. The first observation that Constance makes, after exposing Iago as a conniving instigator, is that Othello is “not a Moor”—nothing more is said on the subject, and race is not addressed again for the remainder of the play (403). In the introduction to the Oxford edition of Othello editor Michael Neill points to a long history of anachronistic readings of Othello. Neill notes that in the sixteenth century the “categories that defined human difference” were “unstable” (16). He also states that during Shakespeare’s time there was no “coherent language of ‘race,’” so to interpret Othello through our contemporary understanding of racism is to misunderstand the play as Shakespeare intended it to be understood (16). Neill paints the performative genealogy of Othello as a history steeped in shades of Blackness framed by arguments over defining the nature of said Blackness. The play’s history has been dominated by racial issues, but MacDonald’s adaptation brushes racism to the margins, focusing instead on Constance’s psychological journey from passive object to active agent in charge of her own life’s trajectory, author of her own story, for Goodnight Desdemona (Good morning Juliet) is not concerned with issues of racism as both Harlem Duet and Shakespeare’s Nigga are, but is instead concern with how one can regain control of their own story.

Shelley Scott and D. A. Hadfield both assert that MacDonald’s play partakes in furthering a third wave feminist agenda. Hadfield avers that “MacDonald engages with humour in an effort to make palatable a feminism that is in line with the third wave of feminism. She is not militant, and she is not engaged in promoting an essentialist agenda, but merely opening up the canon to reinterpretation while exposes the guardians of the canon as relic abusers, who need to be dethroned” (58). The play paints the Stratford Festival as one of those exclusionary spaces:

Those guys remind me of the Stratford shows I’ve seen, Where each production has a Roman bath: The scene might be a conference of state, But steam will rise and billow from the wings,

While full-grown men in Velcro loincloths speak, While snapping towels at each other. (414)

Stratford is depicted as a boys’ club, and part of the play’s agenda is to open the doors of said boys’ club, and to allow women, such as Constance, admission. In a Toronto Star review of the play, Robert Crew noted that MacDonald “takes some wicked shots at a recent, locker-room production of Romeo And Juliet at Stratford, with hearty young jocks punching each other on the arm and making bawdy jokes”. While in a The Province (Vancouver) review Jerry Wasserman argued that MacDonald was not referring to a particular Stratford production, but to Stratford as a whole because even at Canada’s largest theatre festival “the lead women were mostly passive victims,” which was why “she decided to write her own play in which a mousy female academic pursues alternative ideas about Shakespeare.”

The institutions and figures that foster Constance’s stasis are Queen’s University (a university who’s very name is tied to Britain) and a male Professor (Claude Night), who aspires to teach at Oxford and affects a fake English accent. Oxford is painted as a place that is venerated by Canadians (Night, Ramona and Constance all want to be there rather than at Queen’s). Queen’s and Oxford are both part and parcel of a historical legacy that promotes repetition rather than reinterpretation and reinvention. Constance’s doctorate, which revolves around a groundbreaking reinterpretation of Romeo and Juliet and Othello, is mocked by her peers rather than praised for its originality. As Constance becomes the author of her own story she unlocks the alchemical key to turning herself from base metal (her last name is Ledbelly, after all) into gold. Constance’s trip through Shakespeare’s plays leaves a deep imprint on her psyche, but there is only one change that manifests within the present reality of 1988 Kingston, Ontario: the transformation of her quill—made from her dead parakeet Laurel’s feather— which has turned into gold and has reappeared behind her ear, despite Constance’s earlier efforts to throw the quill into the garbage. At the play’s conclusion, Constance establishes a balance between appreciating the old (she learns from Juliet and Desdemona), but she is no longer tied to the past, for with her golden quill she can write her story, rather than ghost write Night’s.

Harlem Duet

A decade after Goodnight Desdemona was first staged, Djanet Sears’s prequel to Othello, Harlem Duet, premiered at Nightwood Theatre in 1997. Harlem Duet is a highly theatrical, complexly structured adaptation of Shakespeare that weaves together three chronologically separated narratives (1860, 1928, late 1990s) with the majority of the play set in then-contemporary Harlem, New York. The storyline set in the late 1990s is entirely situated in Billie’s Harlem apartment, which she used to share with her husband, Othello. Othello has recently left Billie for his White university colleague, Mona, but has yet to untangle his life from hers. While well fleshed-out characters such as Magi, Amah and Canada populate the Harlem narrative, the other two narratives (1860 and 1928) have only two characters, and in all three narratives the same actors that play Billie and Othello play the male and female protagonists. All three stories echo each other, for in each one the Black male leaves his Black wife for a White woman. 4

If Goodnight Desdemona (Good morning Juliet) pushes issues of race and racism to the margins, then Djanet Sears’s Harlem Duet sets those same issues at its heart. The play takes off, to some extent, from where Ann-Marie MacDonald leaves off. Like Goodnight Desdemona, Harlem Duet is an adaptation of Shakespeare that seeks to situate women at its centre. Harlem Duet, however, is specifically concerned with establishing a space for African American women. In her prefatory comments to the play Sears asserts that “As a young actor, I soon realized that a majority of the roles that I would be offered did not portray me in the way I saw myself, my family, or my friends” (13). Harlem Duet aids in curing the blinding whiteness of the Canadian canon by offering an antidote intended to cure the monochrome quality of the canon as Sears experienced it. Sears’s antidote is a Black antidote. Harlem Duet offers interesting and challenging roles for African Americans, roles that Sears deemed as lacking from the Canadian canon, for as an actor herself she was all too familiar with the dearth of roles open to her. Whiteness is expunged from the narrative. Othello’s White colleague Chris Yago is relegated to a topic of conversation who is not likely to step foot in Harlem let alone on stage, and Mona is pushed beyond the periphery of the stage.

Harlem Duet tells the story of Othello’s first marriage to Billie (short for Sybil), the Greek prophetess mentioned briefly in the third act of Othello. Although the play is chronologically reframed, many of the characters are destined to retrace the steps of their literary forbearers. Harlem Duet closes where Shakespeare begins: Othello leaves his first wife for Mona (Desdemona), and will perhaps smother her after being psychologically poisoned by Chris Yago (Iago) while teaching in Cyprus. While Billie, like Sybil whose prophecies were incomprehensible, spirals into insanity. There is a predestination-like quality that underlies the play, a quality that is further reinforced through the chronological triple narrative. In every narrative—in Harlem of the 1860s (populated by Him and Her), in Harlem of the 1920s (populated by She and He) and in contemporary Harlem—Whiteness is framed as more desirable (at least more desired by the Othello character), and it is this pursuit of Whiteness that destroys Black relationships and propels Black men towards tragic fates. In 1860, when Her cradles the corpse of Him, it is made clear that Him’s grisly fate resulted from his expression of love for the White Miss Dessy (310). A hundred and thirty years after Him is lynched for pursuing a White woman his contemporary incarnate, Othello, is not psychically assaulted by Whites for his interracial relationship, but is culturally suffocated by his own “White respect” (299). Harlem Duet’s Othello is no brave warrior, he is a troubled academic who longs for a time when race no longer constricts his life. He tries to push himself into an ideal future that the world is not ready for, a world where race no longer defines and shapes a person, and in doing so he disavows his own cultural identity when he chooses to “enter the Whiteness” (300). “What does Africa have to do with me?” Othello asks of Billie while asserting that his culture is not Makonde statues and boubous, but “Wordsworth, Shaw, Leave it to Beaver [and] Dirty Harry” (305).

The play’s primary geographic location is Billie’s apartment, located at the intersection of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X boulevards (125th and Lennox). The two philosophies of these men embody the antithetical relationships to race and racial integration held by Othello and Billie. Billie’s intense pride in her culture turns into blind racism directed towards White culture, while Othello seems to want to edit out the concept of race as a factor that affects an individual’s character. Linda Burnett maintains that “Sears explores two extreme responses to the racism faced by Blacks in North American society—integration and separation—and finds each lacking” (78). Othello, like Martin Luther King, aspires for the American dream of the melting pot (integration), where differences fade as individuals strive towards the American dream of equality. Othello asserts that he is “beyond this race bullshit now” (300) because he is “not [his] skin”, (305) but Billie recognizes that racism and race are not relics of the past, but present realities. Billie does not think integration is the answer; her racial philosophies are aligned with Malcolm X who advocated for the separation of Blacks and Whites because he believed that African Americans could not advance in a society dominated by a White majority. Billie struggles with her militant reactionism, which manifests in White-directed racism.

Billie’s landlord, Magi, and her sister-in-law, Amah, balance out the extreme viewpoints held by Othello and Billie. Amah reminds Billie that Billie herself once believed that “colour’s only skin deep” (296), while Magi diagnoses Billie with racism in 2.7. In her diagnosis, Magi poignantly notes that Billie has defined herself in oppositional terms, which has reduced her to an essentialist caricature: “Is everything about White people with you? Is every living moment of your life is [sic] eaten up with thinking about them...Do you know who you are anymore? What about right and wrong” (313). The effects of racism have not only tainted Billie’s perspective of the world, but her self-perception as well. In the following dialogue the scar that White supremacist thinking has left on Billie’s psyche is made evident:

BILLIE. I don’t even believe in Harlem any more. MAGI. Come on. BILLIE. It’s all an illusion. All some imagined idealistic...I dunno. MAGI. When I go out my door, I see all the beauty of my Blackness reflected in the world around me. BILLIE. Yeh, and all my wretchedness by the time I get to the end of my block. MAGI. Billie, he’s the one who wants to White wash his life. (303)

A culture that measures success in terms of Whiteness has stained Billie’s psyche, for she sees her own Blackness as “wretchedness,” rather than as beauty. Magi, on the other hand, expresses a love of Blackness, a love that Billie had at one juncture, but Othello’s betrayal has smothered that love. It is Othello who has taught Billie that Black “success is Whiteness” (300). Billie cannot move beyond blind hatred for Whites before she can learn to love herself again, Blackness and all.

Amah’s race consciousness is established early in the play when she describes the enforcement of a bureaucratic regulation that requires her to learn “foundational” white hairstyling before she is permitted to open a salon for Black women (291). Amah explains to Magi how New York City’s bureaucratic regulations stymie her attempts to become an independent business owner:

AMAH. I can’t rent your ground floor. They won’t give me any insurance ‘cause I don’t have a license. And I can’t get a licence until I get a cosmetician’s certificate. And I can’t get a cosmetician’s certificate until I finish this two-year course on how to do White people’s hair and make-up. I told them ain’t no White people in Harlem. I’d learn how to do work with chemical relaxers and Jheri curls. Now, I do dreadlocks. And do they teach that? Oh no.

Amah acknowledges the absurdity of the “foundational” requirements, given that her salon will cater specifically to Black women, and while the race-centred barriers that block her from achieving her dream of opening a salon evidently upset her, she does not react with venom. Instead, she has found a way to work outside the scope of the system. Amah does hair in private homes, as a result the state, which has put up the regulations that bar her from opening up a brick-and-mortar salon, is denied tax revenues. According to Amah, this missed out revenue has become substantial enough to merit a “crackdown” (291). Amah, however, wants nothing more than to open up a tax-paying, brick-and-mortar salon called “The Lock Smiths,” but it is the government’s own regulations that hurt both itself and entrepreneurs such as Amah.

Amah’s experience mirrors the trajectory of much critical literary training, where studying the canonical works of English patriarchy—Shakespeare in this case—is considered “foundational.” Undergraduate degrees at both York University and the University of Toronto require students to take courses in a number of required literary periods deemed essential by the faculty. These requisite courses are intended to produce well-versed students armed with a broad knowledge of literature, but—at least from my experience—minority literatures, such as African Canadian literature, are almost never including within these core requisites. Instead, they are pushed to the periphery, like Mona with only her arm visible to the audience, the rest of her body obscured. In her introduction to Harlem Duet Sears notes that it was the restricting canon that inspired her to write Harlem Duet, for she felt the need to “exorcise” the demonic white-man-in-black-face Othello that has haunted her for years (14).

At the Second International Women’s Playwrights Conference broke down into argumentative factions. Academics reacted to each other with hostility, rather than a spirit of co-operation. In her introduction to The Canadian Theatre Review Ann Wilson laments the spirit of rancour that fuelled arguments put forth by “various feminisms,” arguments that were so hostile they broke out into yelling matches (3). The banner of feminism, which some White participants5 felt was not tied to race or sexual orientation prior to the conference, was torn to shreds by coalitions of minorities who felt that broad-brush feminism failed to represent their perspectives. In Harlem Duet both Billie and Othello recognize that Black feminism and White feminism are different entities. “The White women’s movement is different,” Othello tells Billie some-what sheepishly (304). According to him, White women are vying for to share the “economic and political pants” that White men have historically refused to share (304). Othello asserts that Black feminists are not fighting to share “the pants,” but to “wear the pants” (304). While Billie agrees that there is a fundamental difference between Black and White feminisms, she is, however, offended by Othello’s hostile, over-simplified understanding of “the Black feminist position” (304). Billie explains to Othello that “historically, it has been the labour of Black women, reproductive and otherwise, that has fuelled the economic engines of both Black and White society” (Dickinson 111), and it is because Black women’s bodies have been a locus of labour that they were not granted access to participate in the women’s liberation movement, for while “White women were burning their bras, we [Black women] were hired to hold their tits up. We looked after their homes, their children” (304). For Billie, the White women’s liberation movement is partially responsible for eroding away Black female subjectivity, while they themselves (White women, that is) fought to assert their own subjectivity.

The animosity that besieged the Second International Women’s Playwrights Conference disturbed Wilson, but perhaps such a rupture, although unproductive at the time, was a necessary cathartic release. In Harlem Duet Billie’s reaction to White-perpetuated racism is White-directed racism, but the play as a whole does not advocate for Billie’s blind hatred. In fact, it advocate’s against it by showing a broad spectrum of Black identities and perspectives, each with its own positive and negative aspects. The venue to express rage and anger is sometimes a necessary step to being able to over come said anger. Harlem Duet’s female protagonist is fuelled by hostility, but the play promotes healing and forgiveness, for after all, the prodigal father, Canada, stays with his daughter in her time of need, rather than abandoning her. Billie’s community comes together because of her breakdown, and out of her pain is born a fuller community complete with a loving patriarch, who is no longer prescribes to the stereotype of the Black absentee father. Canada stays to play the role of the doting father, the loving grandfather and the caring father-in-law.

The play was written by a Toronto playwright and performed for the first time in Toronto, but Harlem Duet is set in The States and populated with specifically American allusions to famous American Black historical figures. Recognizable segments of speeches from Paul Robeson, Louis Farrakhan, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, among others, are played on a soundtrack that ebbs between obtrusive and dissonant to complementary and illustrative. Lacking from the polyphony of voices are the voices of strong Black women such as Maya Angelou and Rosa Parks. In a personal interview I asked Sears if the exclusion of female voices was intended to gesture towards the anti-Black feminist sentiments articulated by Othello. Sears responded, “No, I never intended the clip choices to exclude women. I wanted the clips to be identifiable, and unfortunately Rosa Parks does not have an iconic speech that people could hear and recognize. I did, however, suggest the use of an Oprah clip for one recent staging of Harlem Duet.” I followed by asking Sears why she did not include any black Canadian voices in the voice-over clips. “This play has been accused of being un-Canadian, but Shakespeare set his plays in other countries all the time—Othello’s set in Cyprus!—and no one ever accuses Shakespeare of being un-English! I set it there [in New York] because it is easier for people to digest criticism when they’re not being directly pointed at.”

“Canada Freedom Come” is a line repeated over and over again by Him and Her because for them Canada was the only true salvation from a life of slavery. Her explains, “Up in Canada we won’t have to please no White folks no how...Canada freedom come” (302). When Canada visits Billie does not venerate her father the way Her hallowed Nova Scotia. Canada is a recovering alcoholic that abandoned his children, and is so divorced from his progeny that he has not even met his daughter-in-law or his granddaughter, who is almost six and Canada has “only talked to her on the phone” (307). As an allusion for Canada the nation, Canada the character has failed his daughter, he abandoned her for alcohol, but he has returned in her time of greatest need to care for her. The venerated Great North also disappointed its new black immigrants, for as a nation Canada, like The States, has a history steeped in racism. The 1988 Canadian Multiculturalism Act, which made it Canada’s official mandate to adopt a multicultural policy that would respect Canada’s immigrants, was established to make up for Canada’s checkered history. It was imperative that the government address Canada’s xenophobic history before progress could be made towards mending the wounds that state- sanction prejudice had allowed.

Canada tells Billie the story of a man that was struck by the arrow of an unknown attacker, and died—not because of the arrow—but because he refused “remove the arrow until the archer was found and punished” (308). The festering wound that caused the man to die is a metaphor for how hatred poisons. Trying to combat bigotry with more bigotry is like allowing a wound to fester “until finally the poison infect[s] [the] entire body” (308). The arrow of hatred must be removed before the healing process can begin. At the Second International Women’s Playwrights Conference the pain of a history of marginalization needed be 17 addressed, perhaps without such a venue for minority playwrights to express their issues a play like Harlem Duet would not have been written in Toronto, for although Billie is injured, the play as a whole promotes forgiveness, healing and second chances. Billie may not be able to remove the arrow herself, but her community and family close ranks around her to help extract her arrow.

Shakespeare’s Nigga

Joseph Jomo Pierre’s Shakespeare’s Nigga, which premiered February 2013, wears its literary inheritance proudly, for it is the literary telos of a history of Toronto-born Othello adaptations. Like Goodnight Desdemona the play fuses two of Shakespeare’s works (Titus Andronicus and Othello, rather than Romeo and Juliet and Othello), allowing for characters to interact across play boundaries, and like Harlem Duet the play is recontextualized historically. While there are never any specific geographic or chronological details given, the Southern plantation setting and the enslavement of the African American characters situates the play in the nineteenth-century United States. There is thus a second resonance between Harlem Duet and Shakespeare’s Nigga: both are Canadian plays set on American, rather than Canadian, soil. The highly stylized prose text never veers into iambic pentameter like Goodnight Desdemona, but like its literary predecessor Shakespeare’s Nigga is peppered with lines plucked from the original Shakespeare plays. Pierre was inspired to write Shakespeare’s Nigga after being cast to play Titus Andronicus’s Aaron in a theatre school production of the play. Pierre recalls that the director wanted him to play Aaron as though he were “pure evil,” but for Pierre Aaron had much more depth to him than that, which was why “right there [he] swore [he] would tell Aaron’s story” (Hague).

In Shakespeare’s Nigga Aaron and Othello are black slaves that work on Shakespeare’s plantation. Othello is a house slave that enforces Shakespeare’s authority, and is treated as an intellectual equal. Othello paints with Shakespeare, reads his poems and even asks Shakespeare for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Aaron, unlike Othello, is a field slave who refuses to acquiesce to a life of slavery. In the 2013 production of Shakespeare’s Nigga, when Aaron first appears on stage he is shackled on all fours and a whip is cracked with such painful loudness that it startles the audience. Othello is whipping Aaron as penance for his attempted escape, but rather than repent Aaron meets the crack of the whip with the imperative “Hit me!” (3). The play is framed around Othello and Aaron’s different relationships to racial oppression. Othello, like Othello in Harlem Duet, promotes an integrationist approach. He has been raised by Shakespeare to believe that he “may hold court with any learned man” regardless of race because he is “the equal of any man [his] age” (36-7). Aaron believes that Othello seeks “whiteness,” an accusation that Billie lobs at her own Othello in Harlem Duet (34). According to Aaron, Othello is a “negro” and not a “nigga” because he “can look into a mirror and deny the very thing that reflects back” (33). Like Billie, Aaron reacts to racial oppression with rage, and raises a violent rebellion that will “kill all those complicit [in slavery], without remorse” (39).

The first character to minister to Aaron after his beating is Shakespeare’s daughter Judith. Although she is attracted to Aaron, and even claims to love him, she fails to understand him, and as a result she can only love her idea of who he is. Judith does not understand why Aaron cannot be “content” within the limitations of slavery (6). Judith, although headstrong, does not seek to change her situation—she does not fight to gain more agency, instead she throws tantrums and calls her situation “unfair” (19). When asked why he cannot be content Aaron responds, “Content, in the mouth of a slave that word is so disparaging it has no peer. To be Content is to give way to the belief that I have been given my just deserves [sic]. Maybe you believe that” (6). Judith considers Aaron to be an exception. According to her he is the “strange fruit,” an “anomaly of some sort,” she excuses her sexual attraction to Aaron by asserting that he is somehow not like other Black men. Judith does not see beauty in the Black race as a whole; she is only attracted to Aaron. Aaron opines that his Blackness defines him: “The trunk the branch the fruit; there is no separation for me, it is all one” (25). Thus, Judith’s claim that she loves Aaron, but not Blackness reveals that her love is disingenuous, for she wants to deny the very aspect of Aaron’s identity that he himself venerates. Despite being enslaved because of his skin colour, Aaron never bemoans the unfairness of his plight. The only two characters who find their situation unfair are the most privileged: Judith says it is “unfair” (19) when her father insists she marry; and Shakespeare has the nerve to tell Aaron that his words against him are “not fair” (50).

Throughout the play Aaron is having an affair with Judith, but Othello (who has no idea that he is Judith’s half brother) covets her and hopes to marry her. Rather than explain to Othello that he cannot marry Judith because the union would be incestuous, Shakespeare resorts to using Othello’s race as the reason for stymieing the marriage. “Marriage can never happen...You are Black Othello,” explains Shakespeare, rather than divulging to Othello that he is his father (37). Othello, who has been brought up as Shakespeare’s equal, is confused and pained by Shakespeare’s refusal to allow him to marry Judith. Othello’s dejection is amplified when he walks in on Aaron and Judith making “the beast with two backs”, for she has chosen, what Othello sees as, the lesser man, “a base creature” (29). It is at this juncture that Othello releases Aaron from the bonds of slavery. After Aaron is released and given his freedom he quickly realizes with the help of supernatural winds there is no place for him to go, he is not actually free because “there is no freedom for one without freedom for all” (31). In the following scene Aaron grows closer to freedom by claiming ownership of his title, he refuses to use the language of the oppressor, he is not a “negro” or a “kneegrow,” but a “nigga” (32). Aaron uses “nigga” in the same way that hip hop culture has appropriated the word to mean something exclusive, used between Black individuals and not dared uttered by the oppressor.

Although the play is set over a century in the past, its title, Shakespeare’s Nigga, has already stirred up quite the current controversy. When I tell people about this play most people furrow their brows and repeat the title back to me as “Shakespare’s N-Word”. At the play’s  first preview the White Passe Muraille usher referred to the play exclusively as “Shakespeare,” completely omitting the problematic word from the title, and since there was no problematic object the title’s subject was striped of its possessive. While the usher may have been showing respect through his omission, it was an interesting Freudian slip, for without the word “Nigga” in its title the play becomes repossessed by the very same White ghosts that Shakespeare’s Nigga seeks to exorcise. This is not a play about Shakespeare’s story, his story has been told and retold countless times, it is Aaron’s story—a story he has been smothered for centuries. Pierre is highly aware of the power of the word “nigga,” but he does not think it “should be buried” simply because it is “soaked in so much pain” (Hague). In an interview with Obsidian’s dramaturge, Mel Hague, Pierre explained why he chose to use the word “nigga”:

What is great to me is that my relationship to the word isn’t static, I still sometimes question how I use it, how others use it. I am prone to squirm when I’m not cool with the context it is sometimes used in. But my character claims it and that opens the door for a discussion about language. Thus in a contemporary context the audience experiences how words have the power to unsettle us, to hurt us, to control us, while Aaron discovers their same power within the play.

While escaping for his second time, after Othello has liberated him, Aaron is followed by a supernatural wind that sings a fragmented chorus of the children’s ditty “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” (31). The irony of the wind’s message is that words can be more painful than the crack of a whip, for within the play’s very title there is a word with such power that many dare not utter it. There are but a handful of English words as powerful as “negro,” words that have been historically used to force others into submission, to paint others as less than. Aaron reappropriates the word “negro” by transforming it into the word “nigga,” and by doing so he ingests the word’s oppressive power by making it a word that he can use, rather than a word such as “negro,” which can be used against him. For Aaron, then, Othello is a “negro” because he rejects his Blackness, whereas “nigga” is a positive, empowering term that demonstrates a love of Blackness (33).

In A Room of One’s Own Virgina Woolf invented the fictional character Judith Shakespeare. (In A Room of One’s Own Judith is William’s sister rather than his daughter.) Judith is born with the exact same literary gifts as her brother, but trapped within the confines of the expectations of women she is never given enough agency to reach the potential that her brother achieved. “She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school,” she was also forced to marry, and ultimately she committed suicide because it is her only escape from her social incarceration (47). Despite her natural gifts, Judith dies having never had the opportunity to write a single play let alone poem. In Shakespeare’s Nigga, Judith is endowed with privilege because she is White and the daughter of Shakespeare, but because she is a woman she has no true agency. Shakespeare even notes that “[h]ad she been born a man [he] would be proud of her qualities. As it is they are not very becoming of a lady” (16). Shakespeare’s Nigga’s Judith has even less agency than her literary forbearer, for she does not take her own life, it is instead taken from her. At the play’s conclusion, when Judith tells Aaron that she loves him, Aaron responds by stabbing her both verbally and literally as he reacts to her declaration of love with the turn of a knife coupled with a matter of fact, “You love me not” (45). Aaron believes that Judith’s proclamation of love is false because if she loved him she would not desire to kill their mix-raced baby, Naliyah. But Judith struggles with her decision, and never actually presses the knife to her illegitimate daughter’s flesh. If given more time she may have changed her mind, she was, as Tyrus pointed out to Aaron, in the post-traumatic shock of giving birth to an unexpected baby (41). Aaron is unforgiving of Judith, and kills her in an effort to save Naliyah, but the killing of Judith is arguably premature, even if it was born of paternal love.

Judith thinks she is making a choice by “fuck[ing]” Aaron, but as a woman her very anatomy restricts her from any real freedom in the act because the likely consequence of a woman in her position, as the play depicts, is pregnancy (23). In the 2013 production of Shakespeare’s Nigga the costumes render the female body a prison. When Judith comes on stage with her pregnant belly the artificial belly is constructed to look like a cage and in the cage the audience can see a baby nesting inside her bulge. Aaron may be shackled, but he is never imprisoned behind bars, and as a woman Judith is born imprisoned by her sex. Although Shakespeare never recognizes Othello as his son, he keeps his illegitimate son close, while Judith’s first instinct is to have her baby killed for fear of realizing the consequences of her actions. Judith’s death at the hands of Aaron is foreshadowed when Aaron says, “When the time calls we will head to the house and kill all who are complicit, without remorse” (39). But could she have learned to love her mixed-race child? Did Aaron act out of love in an effort to protect his daughter or was his action one of “revenge” (49)?

The ending of Shakespeare’s Nigga is a bit perplexing and Aaron’s disappearance is a little too sudden, but it is perhaps intended to be an extended metaphor about the complexity of the Black condition. There are no words that Aaron can say in response to Shakespeare when he asks, “tell me how to fix your slight” (50). Language in this instance fails, for Aaron cannot articulate a solution. The question posed by Shakespeare literally ties Aaron’s tongue even though the question is not an assault, but a genuine effort on Shakespeare’s part to remedy Aaron’s predicament. The solution, however, cannot come from Shakespeare; it must be generated by from the Black community. Naliyah’s birth should be representative of a union between the two races, but it is her birth that drives Aaron to murder both Othello (the integrationist) and Judith. Although Aaron has appropriated the oppressor’s word, and he has made that word his own, he has not yet been able to articulate what the solution should be: integration, separation or some not-yet-articulated third option.

When Shakespeare looks upon his granddaughter, who represents both union and discord between Blacks and Whites, she has turned into a book that reads, “There is music from the most crude of instruments. Complex melodies, each searching for their own resonance. Volumes hidden between each beat, masquerading as silence” (51). This metaphor about the crude instruments adds further layers of complexity to Aaron’s inability to articulate a solution because the metaphor’s aim is to show there is no single solution to the strife of those who have been silent and complacent for so long. In the last line “beat” can be a triple entrendre referring to the musical beat, the experience of lashings, and finally the dramatic beat, for hopefully this quizzical ending has produced a noticeable change in the audience. Thus perhaps the audience, that has been static for the hour and twenty-minute duration of the play, will be propelled to action by the play’s words. In Harlem Duet each character has a different way of coping with a history of White domination: Othello tries to integrate; Billie becomes a hate-fuelled Black separatist; Amah recognizes the injustice of a racially biased system, but works around the bureaucratic red tape; while Magi revels in her cultural heritage by wearing boubous and proclaiming her love of Blackness. In Sears, however, the ultimate message of the play is that to liberate oneself from the stasis of hate, forgiveness and love are necessary for healing. The wound caused by a history of racial oppression has left a scar, but to obsess over that scar is to be blinded to a world of possibilities, hatred fuels stasis, whereas forgiveness fuels forward momentum. Similarly, in Goodnight Desdemona Constance Ledbelly is trapped in a static state. Constance’s stasis, however, is due to her inability to communicate; she lacks self-reflection and while she excels at analyzing literary texts she must learn how to think analytically about her own life. Desdemona’s Amazonian fire ignites Constance’s fuse, which propels her towards her first moment of self-reflection: acknowledging that she has been intellectually and emotionally extorted by Claude Night. Once she recognizes her anger, she can move forward, but it is not hate that propels Constance, but the awareness that the power of self-authorship is self-bestowed, and no masculine figure has the authority to strip her of this power.

The ways in which Othello has been adapted over the past three decades demonstrates a shifting relationship between Torontonians and issues of oppression, be it the oppression of women, the oppression of African Canadians, or the oppression of female African Canadians.

Theatre is alive and connects with its audience now, and each incarnation of Othello connects with different contemporary social issues. In the eighties MacDonald was empowering women through a distinctly Third Wave Feminist approach that sought to gain a canonical foothold for women through the use of subversive humour. In the nineties Djanet Sears addressed how the fragmentation of the Black community (divided by integrationists and separatists) needed to be reversed. Harlem Duet promotes the healing power of the community. In Shakespeare’s Nigga there is still a discord between separatists and integrationists, but the play ends with no community: Aaron kills the mother of his daughter, he kills his fellow slave Othello, and then abandons his daughter leaving her with her grandfather. When Shakespeare reaches out to connect with his granddaughter he removes the blanket that swaddles her only to realize that she has turned into a book and he is left alone. Shakespeare’s Nigga suggests that through words the Black experience can be excavated from a history that has sought to smother it, and it is perhaps through historical and fictional excavation and extrapolation that the Black community can come together, through shared stories and histories and shared words such as “nigga.”

End Notes:

1 Quarto and Folio editions of some plays, such as Hamlet, are markedly different from one and other and have promoted centuries of scholarly debate. There are three editions of Hamlet that have survived; each text is strikingly different from the others. For example the First Quarto contains only half the text of Second Quarto. A mere 200 lines are identical between the two quartos. Lewis Theobald (an eighteenth-century editor) combined the different editions in an effort to establish a more comprehensive text. In his introduction to the Oxford edition G. R. Hibbard notes that the editing practice of conflating various editions of Hamlet remained unchallenged for centuries. The recent Arden edition (2006) of Hamlet has published the different versions, rather than conflating the versions of Hamlet, demonstrating an editorial shift away from constructing a full, or authentic, text from the disparate versions of the text.

2 In 1890, in an effort to establish autonomy from our southern neighbours, the federal government passed an Order-in-Council, which stated, “In all official documents, in the Canada Gazette and in the Dominion Statutes, the English practice of -our endings shall be followed” (qtd. in Pratt 67). This decree was passed because after Webster published An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), both the Canadian press and the Canadian government began to implement the American spellings, for American written English mirrored Canadian spoken English more so than written British English.

3 As this paper is concerned with Canadian works, I will not be hypothesizing with regards to British adaptations, which may be less free to experiment because of Shakespeare’s status as a cultural icon. Because Canada is a patchwork of nationalities not all groups—indigenous (Quebecois and First Nation) and immigrants—venerate Shakespeare with the same verve.

4 The resonant aspect is emphasized even further when Othello repeats lines spoken by He in 1928 verbatim in the present. While kissing Her Him says “I’m exploring the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. The curvaceous slopes of California. The red hills of Georgia, the mighty mountains of New York” (294). In the present Othello repeats those exact lines while bedding Billie one final time. Othello then compels Billie to repeat what her says in 1860 (“I don’t come cheap you know”), but Billie fails to repeat the words of her historical sister (301). When the play concludes, however, Billie like 1860s Her also contemplates leaving The States for Canada.

5 In a Twentieth-Century Canadian Theatre lecture Cynthia Zimmerman stated that she was one of the many white female participants that were startled by the lack of sorority at the Second International Women’s Playwrights Conference

 

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Note to the Reader

I approached this topic with much trepidation. I am not an expert, nor do I claim to be an authority about black Canadian culture. With this article, I aimed to sketch out a genealogy of Othello adaptations by Toronto-based writers, and I hope I have done sone in a sincere manner, while treating these complex heterogenous subjects with respect. There will always be problems with write critics writing about black struggles.  Hopefully, this article will spark a conversation that will be productive and positive because that was the spirit in which this was written.