Review: “Othello” by the African-American Shakespeare Company (****)

by Charles Kruger

Reviewed by a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

L. Peter Callender is an actor of remarkable range. Equally at home in Shaw or Shakespeare, August Wilson or Annie Baker, he can convince in roles as disparate as the Victorian Colonel Pickering in Shaw’s “Pygmalion” or a proud native African at the time of the colonizing of Zimbabwe during the late 19th century in Daniel Gurira’s “The Convert.”  Or, as I noted once in a review, he can “out Wilde” an entire company of actors as Mr. Dumby in “Lady Windermere’s Fan.” And, as artistic director of the African-American Shakespeare Company, he is, of course, a Shakespeare specialist. His performance, last season, starring in Richard III, offered some of the finest work this reviewer has seen onstage.

So, I attended the recent opening night of his “Othello” with great expectations indeed. As anticipated, it is a thrilling production, but not without some puzzling aspects.

Callendar’s Othello is a huge personality, full of romance and rage and possessing a frightening bestiality as well. This Othello is neither entirely gentle or brutal, brilliant or naive, convincing or phony, He is a boiling cauldron of fascinating contradictions. In some ways, this is a characterization reminiscent of Olivier’s, thought by many to be Sir Laurence’s greatest Shakespearean performance. (It can be seen in a filmed record of his stage performance.) Others were embarrassed and offended by Olivier’s performance in blackface about which one cringe-inducing reviewer remarked on the actor’s ability to capture the physicality of “the barefoot races.” What are we to make of a Black actor taking such an over-the-top approach to Othello that in moments he reminds us of a classically trained white British actor performing in blackface? That Callender does this brilliantly can almost go without saying. Such considerations are what make plays like “Othello” and “The Merchant of Venice” with their deeply racist associations and potentialities, difficult to perform in 21st century America. Did Shakespeare have great insight into the psychology of a noble Moor in Europe, or does he present an image of a barely civilized Black man stripped of a shallow veneer to reveal a beast at heart? A kind of Elizabethan “Emperor Jones?”

I am raising questions I can’t begin to answer, but can only say that the performance left me excited and confused, and very, very well entertained.

Also engaging was the equally astonishing work of Michael Ray Wisely as “honest” Iago, the unrepentant villain of the piece. If Callender’s “Othello” is full of ambivalence, Wisely’s hate-filled Iago shoots as straight as an arrow into Othello’s passionate heart. This Iago is as open and plain as a book, honest to a fault in his asides to the audience, two-faced as the Devil in his dealings with Othello and the ill-fated stooge, Roderigo (superbly played by Gabriel Ross, a versatile and always interestingly eccentric actor). The night I was there, the audience responded with vocal delight at each iteration of the oft-repeated phrase “honest Iago”—an indication of how this production is truly engaging and easy to follow, the language presenting no difficulties at all. The rest of the company are all excellent as well. There are no weak links.

This is a fast-moving, totally engaging production, easy to follow. The language is Shakespeare’s with only a few modernizations for clarity, very effectively used. Even Shakespeare-phobes will find it thrilling and accessible.

What one most asks of Shakespeare is a ride on an emotional and intellectual rollercoaster, full of laughter and tears. This “Othello” delivers.

“Othello” continues at the Marines Memorial Theater through October 27, 2019. For further information, click here.

Rating: **** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

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“Othello” by William Shakespeare Presented by the African-American Shakespeare Company. Director: Carl Jordan. Set Designer: Cayla Ray-Perry. Lighting Designer: Kevin Myrick. Sound Designer: Larry Tasse. Costume Designer: Keri Fitch. Prop Designer: Samira Mariama. Fight Choreographer: Durand Garcia. Voice & Text Coach: Miriam Ani. Choreographer: Devin Parker Sullivan.


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