SHAKESPEARE’S NIGGA by Joseph Jomo Pierre, directed by Philip Akin, with Sascha Cole, David Collins, John Jarvis, Pierre and Andre Sills. Presented by Obsidian, Theatre Passe Muraille and 3D Atomic at Passe Muraille Mainspace (16 Ryerson). Previews from Saturday (February 2), opens February 7 and runs to February 23, Tuesday-Saturday 7:30 pm, matinee Saturday 2 pm. $15-$35. 416-504-7529. See listings.
Actor Andre Sills is curious about how people will react to the "n" word in Shakespeare's Nigga. No question, opinion will be divided.
Joseph Jomo Pierre's fascinating play looks at the Western world's most famous playwright and two of his black characters, Othello and Aaron, the latter from the early, bloody tragedy Titus Andronicus.
"Joe's woven these characters into a story with their creator, offering an amazing series of possibilities," says Sills, who's played the role of Othello in it since the script was first read at the Tarragon in 2008.
"What would happen in the world of the play if Aaron and Othello teamed up? Othello is still the jealous man we know from Shakespeare's classic, while Aaron is fuelled by his rage and the need for more in a society that keeps so many things from him."
Though there's a timelessness to the play's setting, it has the feel of the American South during slavery. Shakespeare has full control over both men, as well as the older Tyrus; it's Aaron, however (performed by the playwright), who's the object of most of his master's brutality, sometimes in the form of a whipping by Othello, Shakespeare's delegated enforcer.
"Our director, Philip Akin, has told us to take the word ‘slave' and transform it into ‘character.' The characters Shakespeare's created are the slaves in his world, trapped within the structure he's set up. Each of the black men wants to define himself in a different way than the designer of this universe intended."
Add Shakespeare's daughter, Judith, to the mix and the relationships become more volatile. Both Aaron and Othello have an interest in her, and secrets from the characters' pasts contribute further tension to the narrative.
"Joe's Othello is the middleman between Shakespeare and everyone beneath him; if someone gets out of line, Othello takes care of the problem. But when he expresses his desire for Judith, Othello reaches higher than his station. It's not surprising that he does so, since Shakespeare has treated him in a way that makes Othello think he's the equal of any man.
"That's when the jealousy kicks in and we see his really hot temper; he can't have the white woman he loves. That parallels Shakespeare's tragedy, where Othello is respected for his deeds on the battlefield but runs into problems when he marries the white Desdemona."
The language of Shakespeare's character is filled with imagery, but in Pierre's script - which has its own elevated quality and sometimes draws on the Bard's words - Othello is most lyrical when dealing with an ornery horse he attempts to tame.
"Joe's Shakespeare keeps reminding Othello that he must temper and control his barbarous nature," says the actor, who spent four years at the Stratford Festival and has performed Othello twice. Coincidentally, he understudied the role when Akin played it at Stratford.
"The character in Joe's play finds himself up against a horse whose spirit won't be broken, try as hard as he can to control the animal; he has as hard a time calming himself. It's a nice marriage of ideas: the barbarous man and the beast, each resisting being tamed."
At the other extreme is Aaron, who refuses to allow his nature to be changed; his fury is apparent from the start of the show.
"Aaron starts the play in chains, not content to live the life he's been given and determined to set things right. Joe provides Aaron with a confrontation with his maker and, finally, the opportunity to get back his own voice."