Liz White’s Othello: The Q&A

The following conversation occurred after our June 1, 2019 screening of Liz White’s Othello at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. The panelists were frequent Court Theatre director Ron O.J. Parson and Steppenwolf Theatre company member James Vincent Meredith, and the discussion was moderated by University of Chicago professor Honey Crawford. The screening was co-sponsored by the Logan Center for the Arts, the Committee on Theater and Performance Studies, and the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture at the University of Chicago.

Honey Crawford (HC): First, I just wanted to thank everyone for braving the torrential rain to be here tonight. I think it speaks to the excitement around this film. I was really excited to have an opportunity to screen it, but also to be able to screen it amongst such incredible figures of Chicago theater. And I think that might lead me into my first question, which is: I think there’s always something really exciting when theater folk find themselves dealing with film, or a cinematic way of seeing things. Watching this film I found myself repeatedly reminded that Liz White, obviously, was a theater producer and director and starred as Bianca in this production. And I saw a lot of stage sensibility, and taste, and aesthetics in this production. I’m really interested—both from you James, as an actor who’s played Othello so many times, what your thoughts about the actor’s performance is—and also Ron, and both of your thoughts on the ways that a stage way of seeing and understanding this play was evident in this film.

James Meredith (JM): It’s kind of hard to—because I’ve done it a few times, the play itself, and so it’s kind of a challenge for me to separate myself from the role that I’ve done on stage, and then watch Yaphet Kotto, just a brilliant actor, give his Othello. There are certain things, of course—liberties that were taken with the script, and orders of the scenes, and scenes that were included and that were taken out. And I think that it did serve the speed of it, I suppose, in certain spots, which is very good. I think it also unfortunately didn’t help the actors as far as character arc. And I think that that is something that I wish that they had had the chance to take advantage of as actors, but I understand [with] this taking place over four years, there are certainly financial constraints and such that would maybe make it better to make in the interest of brevity, to get through it. So I feel like there are parts of it that I hold dear that weren’t there, but I also understand why they perhaps weren’t there.

HC: Certainly in the beginning part of the play, with Othello’s confrontation of Brabantio, and the huge monologue where Othello gets to explain how he made Desdemona love him, that’s sort of split up into different parts. So the initial moment where Iago drags Othello there to sort of justify their relationship to her father is cut, and instead Iago strangely gets little clips of that monologue, like, in a mocking way, he plays with the cannibalism. And then later we get it sort of in Othello’s psyche, but we never get that full monologue.

JM: Which I thought was interesting. I mean, it made sense—as much as I didn’t want to like it, it made a lot of sense to hear Iago mocking that. That was a surprise, but it made a lot of sense. But I did miss that establishment of who Othello is, and to see the statesman that he can be, and the role that he can play in front of all these senators and people that are so valuable in this society. For him to be able to put on that hat, and to be so eloquent and so beautiful in his poetic language. I think there’s a line where he’s like, “Pardon my rude speech,” but then he speaks beautifully. (Laughter) And so you know, stuff like that I really would have valued. But I also understand that there was a particular arc and way that Ms. White needed to take, which I also understand.

Ron OJ Parson (RP): Well, I was just gonna say that sometimes, like you said James, they have to do that. It’s like a Reader’s Digest version of Shakespeare, you know? When Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare there was no TV, there was no film, there was [nothing] of distraction. So theater was a daytime—it was an all day event. You know, you go to the theater and you’re there all day. And so really a lot of times, there’s no way we can, in today’s audience, be able to do everything that he wrote. But I just like the fact that in this period, at that time, for them to be doing that with an all black cast. That was probably unheard of. I was telling James and Honey earlier, I happened to see an interview with Orson Welles, where he did an all black Macbeth, and they wanted to lynch him for doing that. And it just seems like the fact that she was doing it—whatever she did with that was going to be a great achievement for her.

So I think in that sense, yeah, there are a lot of things missing, and especially when you film—I actually was a film student at the University of Michigan. I switched to theater. (Laughter) But it’s really hard sometimes to film plays. To really give it what it deserves. I do do a lot of August Wilson and sometimes when you see the film version of his plays, you look at like, I don’t know, it’s different in the intimacy of the theater. You know, we’re theater guys. We do a lot of theater, and actually we’re gonna be doing a production later on at Writers Theater called Stick Fly. I’m just gonna put a little ad out there. Also there’s a play going on right now called Too Heavy For Your Pocket, which is running at TimeLine. That’s another one. (Laughter) So yeah, it’s an honesty that, like you say, this theater company wanted to do some Shakespeare. So I think that in itself is a great achievement.

HC: It’s funny, I found myself thinking about Spike Lee’s filming of Pass Over as I was watching this. Just for the sort of wonkiness that is inevitable whenever you’re trying to capture a theater sensibility on film. But in a really beautiful way, in a really stimulating way.

RP: You know, sometimes the wonkiness works. If you’re doing something like Waiting for Godot, or something like that. You want that. This one is just interesting. The setting, outdoors, the costuming. There were some elements of it that I really liked: the water, the ocean and stuff. It was good visually.

HC: So you’re kind of getting into, Ron, the radical act in and of itself of saying we’re going to do Othello with an all black cast. And particularly choosing to cast Othello as a darker complexion as compared to the rest of the cast, and how that begs the audience to pay attention to issues of colorism within the—I don’t want to say the African-American community, although as it’s noted all of the actors—

RP: I think it’s worldwide.

HC: Yeah, but in this context all of the actors except for Othello were New Yorkers, and so Yaphet Kotto sort of represents the continental African against the diasporic Africans, who have experienced some level of mixture. And I wonder what you guys thought of that, how it bled—we didn’t really know what to expect, so how it translated through the script, and through the performances. How that was sort of punched, or maybe not so much punched in this production.

RP: Well, I think that it’s definitely a reality, and I think that that added another interesting aspect to looking at Othello in that way. It just seems like the light and dark is still an issue in the community, unfortunately, and for me, that’s one of the reasons I was interested in seeing it, actually, because of how that would carry over in the play. So I thought it was interesting. I don’t know, I’ll let James continue on that one.

JM: Yeah, I thought that was—it seemed to me initially that that was more muted. You know, the idea that this outsider from this community came in and took one of their treasures. That wasn’t quite as large in scale as perhaps it was in the play. But I also sensed that colorism. And, you know, this man being a part of this society, but not really being a part of this society. Talking completely differently from the people in this society, dressing very differently. You could see the difference. I mean, they played it up, but perhaps in a different way. I thought it was effective as it went on, but I have to say I did miss that fact that these are two people who are so in love in spite of that. And I think that the love story was something that I would have liked to have seen, perhaps, a little bit more. They have to really want to be together, because it’s much easier to not be together in this world. And so I was hoping to see that just illuminated a bit more, I think.

HC: And I think some of that was lost in those cuts that we started discussing. Especially some of the most violent lines against Othello: the thick-lipped, or the moment where he has to address her father, those are lost in the cuts. I found it interesting that Bianca, who is Cassio’s whore lover, you know, “She lifted her skirt and threw herself at me.” I found it interesting that they cast her as a fair-complected woman who had a Caribbean accent. So she was also othered in a way similar to Othello, and that division was also there. She was a cultural outsider in a way. But it was also interesting to see, I do agree, that the obstacle of their love was diluted a little bit there.

JM: I think there’s a hurt that Iago feels. You know, the idea that Othello hath done his office. That Cassio hath leapt into his seat. That his wife has cheated on him with these two other men in this world, and the idea of being passed over for the promotion, and all that stuff. There’s a lot of stuff that brings up such hate and anger in Iago. And that actor was so amazing, I wanted him to have some of that language because I bet he could have knocked it out. I feel like I just wanted him to be able to experience some of those emotions in such a way that you would be like, “Oh, that’s why he’s doing this.” Because I know that that guy was so good that he could bring that forth.

HC: Agreed. While we’re on the topic of Iago, I thought he was phenomenal as well. This was the first time I’ve seen Iago played as a trickster character.

Audience Members: Yes.

HC: And he was dressed, even, in Eshu coloring. So he’s like Eshu on the periphery, coming around every corner in his black and red. And most of his dialogue is read sort of leaning in around someone’s neck into their ear. I thought it was brilliant, because what it helped establish was, as they’re in Martha’s Vineyard—and you know, what’s so wonderful about this theater company is that, the Shearer Summer Theater sort of created this black community of theater making. And the play, by making Iago be such an Eshu figure, adopted a non-Euro-centric cosmology. I felt like, we’re operating under an African logic. And these aren’t black folks living in a white world, it’s just a black world where colorism exists, and here’s our opportunity to see it, if not as overtly because of these cuts. We’re at least made to see division within black folks through our own logic.

RP: Yeah, I think that’s different when you have a black Othello and Iago with an entire white cast. That changes it a little bit. There was a production—Delroy Lindo, who’s a friend of mine, an actor, he played Othello to Andre Braugher’s Iago one time. That was actually a great production with those two guys.

Mike Phillips (MP): Where was it?

RP: I saw it at Cleveland Playhouse. It was quite a while ago. But everybody was like, “Oh wow, they got a black Iago!” But in this setting it’s different, it’s not the same response to it. So I thought it was interesting.

HC: I think it might be time for us to open up questions to the audience.

MP: And please wait for the mic because we’re recording audio.

Audience Member #1: Hello, and thank you guys for your insight. I was noticing some of the limitations as well, but what I saw was that they took the diasporic from the African, African-American, Caribbean-American, and how we see relationships. The colorism was there because that’s part of every culture, but what does it mean to different people? Because even though she was the rich girl, she also was expected to have a certain level of purity and chastity. And the women that were maybe poorer were seen as loose or easily manipulated or blamed. That was an interesting thing. And then you have the street versus country, but the country was African. You know, as Americans we may have this thing—well, a long time ago—where the Africans would come here and they were of such pure character, that our character was diluted because of what we went through, maybe, in the Americas, in the Caribbean.

RP: I think that’s still there though.

Audience Member #1: Huh?

RP: I think that’s still there.

Audience Member #1: Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. But lots of Africa is so corrupted now. But at one point, when people were coming over, it was like, you meet a woman, you fall in love, she is the apple of your eye, such and such and such. And American guys were like, “Man, you know, all women, they’re like XYZ.” But [African men were] like, “She can’t be, because she is so beautiful, she is so honest, she is so chaste.” And so you see those things, and then it’s kind of like we were talking about the belief of—if a man cheats it’s expected, but if a woman cheats—look how he fell apart. He’s foaming at the mouth, he can’t get himself together. Somebody has to come get him, he loses his mind mentally, and he can’t even see straight. So then Iago is like, “Oh, let me get in even more now.” Like, “Yeah well, this could happen, but maybe it didn’t happen.” Because what Othello thought about marriage when Iago first was trying to get into his ear, you know, based on the play—but this interpretation which we adopted, as men and women, you get married, you believe your wife first. But then, how do these other elements—and loving too well, like you love someone so much that you’re blind to their faults, and one small thing kind of throws everything off. I mean, I know I’m not asking a question, I’m just talking. (Laughter)

The other thing I was wondering, with the actors—I did see an arc. I actually saw it in Desdemona. It was very, very subtle. She was able to eclipse an emotion. Like, okay, what’s she supposed to be? And you could kind of see the light come out of her, but she’s still this good wife that is holding up. And I actually saw her arc, even though it was really, really subtle. And also—

MP: I’m coming for that mic. (Laughter)

Audience Member #1: Oh, sorry. Mike, would you like the mic?

HC: If I could say really quickly: I agree with that arc that you saw in Desdemona. And I thought it was interesting early in the film, they started with all these really long shots of Desdemona. Especially since we’re dealing with [colorism] and an all black cast—at first I wasn’t actually able to read her as black, because there are these long shots until you actually get her up close. But what I think Desdemona and Emilia gave us really beautifully is that scene between the two of them where she asks, “Do you think there are women who betray their husbands, and would you, and under what terms?” And that scene in some ways is very true to the script, but also their playing of it—they punched up the humor and the playfulness, and it was just girl talk. Like, we’re alone in a room and we can be real. I thought that was gorgeous.

RP: I just want to add to what you were saying about the long shot, and how light complected she was and all that. That, again, is part of the whole kind of colorization of who we are. I mean, people can pass. I was working on a thing, we’re trying to adapt this book called Passing by Nella Larsen, and hopefully that will happen. I’ll put it out there in the air. But I was reading about Fredi Washington, and Fredi could have passed, but she decided not to. And I think that is part of this whole thing, too. You see Desdemona with this dark complected man, she’s making a statement there. I’m a black woman, but I’m gonna be with my brother, you know? I just think that is another thing about this version that adds to that element of it. I think one thing, too—what James was saying about the things that were missed, I guess I was looking at—I mean Shakespeare, his storytelling is just great. And I think that putting another tone on it sometimes really sets it out there as such a great storyteller. And sometimes when we do change things—I hate sometimes to edit people and do that kind of stuff, because if you get the full story, and the language, and if you have a mastery of that language as an actor, you really get an idea of how great this writer was. I don’t want to say that the story was lacking, because his storytelling is just really—I just saw A Winter’s Tale, I keep doing these little promotions, at the Goodman. It was really a great production of that play. And there’s a black woman [that plays] Paulina, she steals the show as far as I’m concerned. It’s Christina Clark. So I’ll just put that out there. You gotta see that one too. I talk too much. It’s in my blood.

Audience Member #2: First of all, I’d like to say thank you all for bringing this film to us. It’s a very nice looking film, I think. I have two things. One is an observation, and the second is a question. One, I’d just like to say as a filmmaker, that I don’t really care about HDTV, and all of the digital formats. Watching a film shot in 16mm with all the graininess, it still takes my breath away. Not to say I’m a dinosaur, but I enjoy it. And second, I wanted to say, I’ve seen a ton of Yaphet Kotto’s films, and I wanted to find out [if] you all know if his voice was dubbed throughout the entire film, because it kind of bothered me a little bit. But I want to know, was it dubbed?

RP: I was gonna say that too, it didn’t sound like Yaphet Kotto to me.

Audience Member #2: No, you know, he had a thick tongue, he had a lisp, you know? Yeah, so.

RP: Well like you said, the way they did the sound—they just dubbed it in later. So he might not have been there to do it.

MP: It was him.

RP: It was him?

MP: He was doing an accent, some affectations.

RP: Okay, that was him. And he was twenty-something years old, so maybe his voice was different from what I’ve seen, when he’s done a lot of stuff later on.

Audience Member #3: But that lisp is undeniable, Yaphet Kotto’s lisp. And I did not hear that a lot of times.

RP: Some people heard it though, they said they could tell.

Audience Member #4: I heard it.

Audience Member #2: You heard the lisp?

RP: Okay. Well, it’s like James Earl Jones used to stutter, but you know, later on he stopped and whatnot. He learned to do it different.

Audience Member #2: Okay, so I guess Kotto did it in reverse. (Laughter) His came later, right?

HC: Maybe the accent helped.

Audience Member #2: That was it though, thank you.

Audience Member #5: I just wanted to say, hearing that question, when we look at this old work and look at Yaphet, as young as he was, and we start to doubt certain things because what we see them in is not stuff like this. We see them in television, we see them in movies, they actually play roles beneath themselves. So we never know the measure of the actors, because we don’t know how far—I mean this is really rare, I’ve never seen him at this age, this young.

RP: I haven’t either. I’ve seen him on stage though. I have seen him on stage.

JM: And it is a different approach.

Audience Member #5: Right, and so when we find something like this we really have to suspend everything we think we know about them.

RP: It looked like he had just gotten out of college or something.

Audience Member #5: Right, the guy was really young, so we don’t know what his powers were at that time. And then when you don’t do this level of work constantly, things change.

RP: That’s true. I would like to also add, for a first time director, even at this level, some of the things that she did—again I go back to this Orson Welles interview I saw. Citizen Kane was his first time [directing], and he was like, “When you do it for the first time, a lot of times you don’t know what you’re doing wrong. You’re just taking shots and you’re just trying things.” And I think that’s what she did a lot. You know, some of those close ups, and the angles, and the angle of the camera and things like that. I mean nowadays people take movies with their iPhone, and they’ve never done it before, but you get good work out there because people are trying things. And I think that was something that I saw in there. And I agree with you about the film. We’ve got a lot of home movies that are 16mm. I know 8mm, 16mm, when I was studying film that was pretty much what we were doing. Just that little camera, you know? And you get a different—I like black and white movies, for instance. And so many young people are like,”It’s in black and white, man, how can you watch that?” But you get the angles, you get the shadow, you know, it’s an artistry that comes with filming like she had to do. So I kind of appreciate that too, I’m a dinosaur too. (Laughter)

HC: Yeah, along the lines of this comment, I found myself frequently through the screening asking myself, what if? Because you know, it was shot over four summers in the early 1960s, and then first screened in 1980. But what if this film had been given exposure in its own context, in its own time within the Black Arts and Black Power movement? How it would have been read and evaluated against statements of “black is beautiful,” and questions of black high society and colorism versus outsiderness? There were just so many what ifs, and I think I found the film enchanting and really fascinating visually, but also I’m really enchanted by just the history of how it happened, and what didn’t happen for some reason.

Audience Member #6: I just wanted to comment how spectacular I thought the music was that moved the play along, and everything was appropriate at the right time and very dramatic.

Audience Member #7: Yes, Honey, I wanted to comment on what you were saying. I think there would have been riots if it was actually released.

HC: See this is why we ask, “what if?” (Laughter)

Audience Member #7: That scene with them in the van in the beginning, that would have been a riot. Sammy Davis Jr., Sidney Poitier, everyone who’d been out marching along with Martin Luther King. But I think it should have still come out at that time. I think it should have. But, you know, that’s just me. But it would have been a powerful film. Powerful now, but even more powerful at that time because it would have been risky to bring it out.

RP: Why do you think they would have been protesting, rioting? I think it’s the other way around, actually. I think they would want to lynch people. Is that what you’re talking about? Because they’re in the bed?

Audience Member #7: Yeah, they’re in the bed there, they’re asleep. But just that one scene, there would have been protests.

RP: From the black community?

Audience Member #7: No, from the world. From people who, I call them the people who don’t understand. You know, the people who were against Martin Luther King marching and against different races marrying and things like that. Those who don’t understand, those are the ones who I believe would have cast a rock towards Martin Luther King’s head, so to speak, you know?

HC: I think about how the scene of Othello choking Desdemona to death would read against emerging black feminism at the time. And of course, you know, it’s Shakespeare. (Laughs) It’s a very Shakespearean ending, is what I’m saying. But, they’re not dressed in contemporary 1960s—they’re not trying to make it contemporary. But it feels contemporary, and culturally relevant in so many ways, that I wonder how that violence would resonate.

Audience Member #7: Well that would have been another thing, as well. Him choking Desdemona, that would have been another layer added onto the riots that would have happened, I think. People are a little more broad-minded now, but back then it would have been a totally different story bringing this film out. I mean, we know this. Those who understand, we know this. I’m sorry. Okay, yeah, that’s it, I’m sorry.

Audience Member #8: That kiss alone would have provoked them. That first kiss, at that time, it would have started trouble.

Audience Member #9: This is more of a question about, now that the film is out, what will be the release of it? Will it go into art houses? Has it been seen in a lot of places? I don’t know.

MP: Um, no. (Laughs) This is probably the only film print that exists of it, and a lot of older films like this kind of fall through the cracks, because no one has a financial stake in getting them out there. There’s no Paramount Studios or Disney with money to go back to the negative, and get it digitized, and clean up the scratches, and maybe fix the fact that the sound is so low in the first reel and so loud in the second reel, and then book it in theaters and stuff. There’s just nobody who has any financial stake in that.

Audience Member #10: How did you know it existed?

MP: I don’t know how I first learned of it, but the Brooklyn Academy of Music, about four years ago, showed it, and they credited the New York Public Library as the source. And my organization has a relationship with them, we’ve borrowed prints from them before. So when I asked if we could show it, they said yes, if I contact Liz White’s granddaughter. 

Audience Member #9: Are there other films like this available? 

MP: You mean, like—

Audience Member #9: From this period?

MP: I don’t really know. I mean, if I find them I’ll show them. (Laughter) We had a question here.

Audience Member #12: I think that Hugh Masekela soundtrack is worth its weight in gold as well.

MP: Oh I know, that was great.

HC: Yeah, it was beautiful. (Pause) Well, thanks. (Laughs)

MP: Do you guys have any last comments about it?

HC: Your final thoughts?

RP: James does, I’m just listening. (Laughter) Well, I hope you try to do this. I know that at the University there was recently—Jackie Stewart had a Bert Williams archival film, and I just love seeing those old—Bert Williams was actually one of my idols. First African-American Actors’ Equity member. “Nobody,” if anybody knows “Nobody.” I just love this kind of history. Like you say, we didn’t see Yaphet Kotto—we’ve seen him in a lot of things, but nothing like this. And I think that you’ll find a lot of the older actors did things in their youth that we don’t know about. And a lot of those guys—it’s good for the history for young people to see this, to see these kinds of films, and things like the old black and whites. Oscar Micheaux doesn’t get a lot of play, and he made hundreds of movies. Charlie Chaplin was making them, but he was making them too. And we need to know that, we need to see that, as young people are coming up. Filmmakers, too. You’ve got filmmakers who don’t know some of these black filmmakers from back in the ’30s and ’20s, the silent era. I appreciate the fact that you’re trying to do those things. And that’s not only in film, that’s also in music, that’s also in literature. We need to keep it alive, so that these young people know what was going on before. Because without knowing what we were doing before, we won’t go forward with the new stuff in the right way. Not to soapbox now, but—(Laughter) I went to [inaudible] and these guys were playing some music, and I say, “Can y’all do some Muddy Waters?” And they did not know any blues. Now they were playing music, and not knowing the blues. How you gonna do that? (Laughter) That blew my mind.

JM: I agree, but I think it’s the language with young people. Because if you say, “Well, you gotta see what we did in the past,” they already shut down. But I know in my approach with young people, it’s like, “This is your legacy.” You know, like, when my daughter comes to me with a song, and it’s by, I don’t know, Ariana Grande, I’m like, “Well, you do know that this song originated in your culture.” It gives her a whole different investment than saying “Oh, in the past—” I remember my father—I used to say, “It’s not the ’60s, Daddy! It’s not the ’60s, it’s not the ’70s!” And now I’m that parent. (Laughter)