Moor Theater. Lester Purry is a newcomer to the role of Othello, but by the time finishes his first production of the Shakespeare tragedy, he should be a veritable expert. Purry is starring in a four-month tour of the play, which reaches Tucson Feb. 11-15.

Mounted by the Minneapolis-based Guthrie Theatre, one of the nation's leading regional companies, Othello is touring the country under the National Endowment for the Arts' "Shakespeare in American Communities" initiative, and is hosted by Arizona Theatre Company. The NEA program is intended to spread top-quality Shakespeare productions through the nation, taking shows mainly to small and mid-sized communities with limited theater resources. Tucson's ATC, of course, has proven perfectly capable of mounting first-rate Shakespeare productions, but any such endeavor, with its huge casts and many scenic and costume demands, is a budget-buster for a professional company. Think of the Guthrie production as a stand-in for what ATC might do in a better economy.

Set in Venice and Cypress, Othello is the personal tragedy of a Moorish military hero serving the Venetians; Othello is regarded highly enough to be given a command and to marry a senator's daughter, Desdemona. Yet the ambitious and vengeful Iago, overlooked for a promotion, casts aspersions on Desdemona's fidelity and engineers the jealous Othello's downfall.

What Shakespeare meant by "Moor" is a matter of some contention; although the term strictly means someone descended from both Berbers and Arabs, we generally take Shakespeare's many references to blackness literally, and the role today goes almost exclusively to African Americans like Purry. It wasn't always so.

"Anytime you do Othello, there comes a historical burden with it," Purry said last week from a hotel somewhere in Utah. "There have been scholars who have said that Shakespeare never would have written such a noble role for a black man, and other scholars who have claimed that African Americans do not have the linguistic acuity to do Shakespeare--our lips are too thick to handle the language. So until fairly recently, this role had very seldom been performed by African Americans; it was performed by white men in blackface, or cast with other people of color. And of course when Shakespeare wrote it, this was never intended to be performed by a black man.

"So there is all that historical weight I have to carry to perform this. And especially when I do this for students, when there are any students of color in the audience, I want them to see that they, too, can do Shakespeare and can and should take an interest in it."

Of the several elements that drive this play--including Iago's naked ambition and hatred, and Othello's uncontrollable jealousy--it's the racial politics that most engage Purry.

"Race is going to come at me differently than it would a person who is white," he acknowledged. "I would grant that if you asked any white member of the cast about this, they'd probably say that race is not a big issue. That's not a jab at them, but we view it very differently. For me and the way I portray Othello, race is a fairly large point.

"He is brought before the senate and accused that the only way he, a black man, could obtain this white woman (Desdemona) is through witchcraft. And when Desdemona comes in, she's standing before them all and her father basically disinherits her. So in that sense, race is very important. As for why Iago does what he does, maybe a part of his jealousy of Othello is that a black man reached such heights, but the play doesn't go into that.

"The biggest thing that affects me, really, is the wonderful, pure love Othello has for Desdemona that is destroyed by jealousy and hate. No matter what the reason for the hate is--whether it's race or unproved adultery--that love is destroyed here is the saddest thing of the play."

Asked if he thought Othello as a Moor gets more of a fair shake from Shakespeare than Shylock as a Jew did in The Merchant of Venice, Purry had to pause and sort out the possibilities.

"This is really up for debate," he said, "but I think some of Shakespeare's own opinions on race and religion come through the writing. There are things that he has these characters saying about themselves where I go, 'Whoa! Wait a minute!' One thing Othello says of himself is, 'Haply, for I am black, and have not those soft parts of conversation that chamberers have.' Is he saying, 'Maybe she's cheated on me because I'm black and not as verbally skilled as the white guys?' Or is he saying in a modern sense, 'Maybe I don't have the opportunities the white man does in this world, and that's why she's looking in that direction'? Did Shakespeare mean that? I doubt it, but he could have.

"Any sensible mind would think, 'OK, Shakespeare was a man of his times, and he held some beliefs that are offensive now.' But he was also very bold in what he says about this character's nobility; a lot of people in Shakespeare's time did not think an African could be a noble type."

Purry praised the director of this production, Joe Dowling, who is also the Guthrie's artistic director. "Joe is an incredibly detailed director," he said. "He was committed to making this a very intimate and accessible production. It's not bombastic; it's not over the top. He made a concerted effort to make sure the people were real. It's like looking through someone's bedroom window, without being creepy, to get a true slice of life--peering back through time and being a witness to these people's lives."

Arizona Theater Company hosts Othello at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 11 and 13, 1 and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 14, and 1 p.m. Feb. 15 at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Tickets cost $40-$45. For more information, call 622-2823 or visit www.arizonatheatre.org.

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