Black Power, White Noise




Othello is set thousands of kilometres away, and hundreds of years ago, but it still feels close to home. Uncomfortably so. Contemporary Australia is still grappling with racial injustice, still suffering moral panic over immigration, and still waging war on foreign soil. When we see Othello on stage, we are forced us to look at ourselves. And what we see is the legacy of imperialism, the loss of cultural and religious identity, and the sometimes fragile nature of racial assimilation.

A recent study on social cohesion, Australia Today 2016, found that while Australia appears to be a broadly tolerant nation, pockets of prejudice still linger beneath the surface. The Scanlon report surveyed more than 10,000 Australian born and immigrant respondents. It found incidence of discrimination were not uncommon, particularly towards people of colour. Participants in focus groups described unwitting discrimination from children shocked at their skin colour, employment discrimination and general “distancing” by people on the street as well as police harassment.

From what we see of Venice in the play, Othello the black ‘Moor’ experiences discrimination on a daily basis. “One of the reasons Othello feels so contemporary is how casual the racism is,” says Peter Evans, who is directing the play for Bell Shakespeare in 2016. “For example, when Brabantio discovers his daughter Desdemona is secretly involved with Othello, he flies off the handle. He makes several racist comments, but it feels like everyone excuses it because he’s angry over his daughter.”

Othello is a military hero in Venice, who has risen from his immigrant, non-Christian roots, to become a General in the army. But as a Moor, he still isn’t fully accepted by the white population in Venice. “It’s fascinating because you actually see that Othello has to bite his tongue three or four times a day,” says Evans. “And you can’t help but think about Australian sport and the way that some people laud Indigenous players for their skills but don’t want the players to ‘get above their station’. Adam Goodes was certainly on the receiving end of that.”

Professor Andrew Markus from Monash University who oversees the Scanlon research estimates that the levels of culturally intolerant people in Australia is probably around 20% of the population. Quoting some of the research findings, The Guardian reported: “…when asked what they least liked about Australia, the first choice of 18% of third generation respondents was racism and discrimination. Another 19% of third generation Australians said too much immigration. There is Australia’s race debate.”

This underlying climate of discrimination also permeates Venice in Othello, says Evans: “Shakespeare doesn’t shine a light on the racism; it’s just there. It’s just another thing that’s woven through the play. It’s not a play about race, and yet race is absolutely integral to everything in the play.”

Samoan-born Ray Chong Nee is playing the title role in the 2016 Bell Shakespeare production of Othello. He says the play has a complicated history for black actors: “It is only fairly recently, like in the past 50 years, that black men have regularly been able to play the role. Up until then it was white actors, sometimes wearing blackface make-up. Now the role has been claimed by black people. The issues that Shakespeare throws up in this play are still quite current. For example, I see a lot of Sudanese people in Melbourne going through a lot of issues with race.”

The Scanlon report certainly bears this out. When asked if they had experienced discrimination in the past 12 months, 77% of South Sudanese immigrants said yes. Similarly, 75% of Zimbabweans, 67% of Kenyans and 60% of Ethiopians.

In 16th Century England, Moorish refugees had arrived in London to escape persecution in Spain. Shakespeare would have witnessed discrimination towards these immigrants. Anxiety among the locals ran so high that, in 1596, Queen Elizabeth I passed an edict banishing “blackamoors brought into this realme, of which kinde of people there are already to manie”.

White women were romantically involved with black men in Shakespeare’s time. Journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown says these unions caused consternation in many quarters: “Shakespeare dramatises and unsettles that moral panic. He made Othello an awesome figure; a black conqueror at a time when blackness was associated with death and evil.”

The relationship between Desdemona and Othello is initially an equal one, says Alibhai-Brown. “This is not a King Kong figure grabbing the young white girl, but an irresistible drawing together in unity.” Ray Chong Nee points out that Othello has partly won Desdemona’s heart with his exotic tales of far off places: “His words are so poetic and beautiful. Nobody else in the play uses the same sort of pentameter or imagery.”

Othello’s command of the local dialect is just one sign of his willingness to assimilate into Venetian society. Since he arrived in chains, he has also been baptised and bravely fought in war. But he is still kept at arms-length, something that Aibhai-Brown (a Ugandan-born Muslim living in the UK) can still relate to today: “Othello’s tragedy is that cultural surrender is not enough for most Venetians. They cannot ever truly embrace him. Desdemona represents the impossibility of colour-blind love and its utter fragility. My children, born here, think their colour doesn’t matter. I hope they are strong enough to bear the pain when they realise it does, always will.”

Indeed, as Ray Chong Nee succinctly puts it: “Until the divide between black and white is non-existent then this play still has relevance. It’s still incredibly powerful.”

The 2016 Bell Shakespeare production of Othello is being performed in Canberra and Sydney – and is touring nationally – until 4 December 2016. See details here.

Andy McLean is a Sydney-based copywriter who grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon. He frequently tweets and shares Shakespeare minutia from @1andymclean