May 13, 2022, by Peter Kirwan
Nothello @ Belgrade Theatre
‘More effing M-words’ shouted out a disgruntled audience member during the closing scene of Othello, reacting to Emilia yet again referring to Othello as ‘The Moor’. ‘He’s got a name!’ the young man shouted. A steward attempted to intervene: ‘That’s enough.’ ‘I agree!’ countered the heckler. ‘You’re ruining it for everyone else’, the steward admonished him. ‘They’re ruining it for me!’ retorted the man. After four hundred years of listening to this play, this young man – Nothello – was finally speaking back to it and demanding a different story.
Nothello, credited to Mojisola Adebayo and William Shakespeare, marked the end of Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre’s contribution to the City of Culture celebrations. Following a number of recent response plays to Othello that have confronted the play’s anti-Black racism and used Shakespeare’s play to stage and give voice to different facets of Black experience, Adebayo pushed the play another way, working with people of mixed heritage around Coventry to use Othello as a starting point for exploring what it means to be mixed-race (a term I use here as it is the term most used in the play, but a term which is also troubled in the play). This – in similar vein to Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, but much better – was Othello told from the womb by the not-yet-born children of Othello and Desdemona, Nothello (Harris Cain) and Desdeknowhow (Aimee Powell).
Brilliantly slipping between Shakespeare’s Venice, the imagined production of Othello, and the surreal uterine world inhabited by Nothello and Desdeknowhow, the play interwove questions of actor responsibility and literary interpretation into the lived experience of contemporary mixed-race people. ‘Cathy’, the white actor playing Desdemona (Rayyah McCaul) had imagined that she was pregnant with Othello’s children as part of her preparation for the role; in doing so, she inadvertently summed Nothello and Desdeknowhow into being. The newly created Nothello, however, immediately had a history within the play, and conducted himself with all the anger of someone who has listened for 400 years to a racist play. Taking the stage – and tying up Cathy, Otis/Othello (Gabriel Akamo) and Colin/Iago (Alex Scott Fairley) – Nothello demanded of both characters and actors that they confront their collusion in sustaining racist responses to miscegenation that leave the children of biracial heritage adrift, indeterminate, not belonging in a world with a deeply impoverished understanding of race.
Much of the play was good, chaotic, irreverent fun. Nothello finally untied the actors, and demanded that they perform his version of Othello, causing much consternation from the cast who just wanted to get to the bar and/or get an early night before tomorrow’s school matinee (‘they’re doing this for their GCSEs’). Appeals to the (real) director (Justine Themen) and to Equity rules were ignored, and the actors found themselves in a space that every now and again pulsated with red light and throbbing, the early stages of the contractions that would eventually birth the foetal Nothello and Desdeknowhow into a world that they were not yet ready for. Nothello’s early heckling had discomfited the actors trying to do Othello, and now they stumbled through his heavy-handed directing. He forced Colin to confront every racist slur, every unnecessary sexualisation of Nothello’s mother, leaving Colin gibbering every hackneyed excuse (‘It’s The Bard!’ ‘You can’t judge old plays by our standards’ ‘I marched in Black Lives Matter too!’, at which Otis buried his head in his hands). What Nothello wanted to force upon Colin was that this is not an acceptable play, however much Colin tried to intellectualise it.
Later, focusing briefly on Brabantio (played by a member of the community chorus), Nothello invited the cast to imagine Othello’s family, staging a scene in which Othello’s Caribbean mother and family joined the stage and welcomed Brabantio into their embrace, feeding him jerk chicken and celebrating family. Here, the play took on aspects of fan-fic, expanding the character base of the play and intervening for a happy ending. What Nothello wanted was the romantic comedy of his parents, that celebrated their love for all of its beauty, rather than subjecting them to hatred.
For all the fun in seeing the young Nothello take these complacent actors to task, though, there was a serious process of education here. Nothello took Cathy aside for their one-on-one, and got Cathy to roleplay as a modern Desdemona. Cathy, embracing the improvisation, got stuck into the difficulties of being a white woman married to a Black man, speaking poignantly of the flak she got from white women (‘Is it true what they say?’), Black women (kissing their teeth at her on the bus), white men (‘traitor’) and Black men (even feeling distanced from her own husband by the invisible codes and languages he shares with other Black men). Yet what began as a plea for empathy became entirely self-centred, a rant against those who would tell her she’s embodying ‘white fragility’ and a curse of Reni Eddo-Lodge (whose name she misremembered). In a brief monologue, Cathy/Desdemona identified the double-edged, lose-lose situation of a white woman in love with a Black man but clueless about the dynamics of race or about the responsibilities she would bear to children who encountered a world that would judge them as too Black and not Black enough.
Desdeknowhow later took on Colin, asking him to play as her. In a beautifully written comic dialogue, she visited on him all of the questions she receives as a mixed-race woman, purposefully misunderstanding him as he tried to explain his parents are from Coventry and Leamington (‘oh, Lebanon/Namibian’ she replied). His attempts to explain his position between North and South, Manchester and London, was turned around by her into uncomfortable grilling on his not-quite-fitting in, before a community chorus of young mixed-race girls ran in and demanded to feel his hair (‘it’s so exotic!’). Demanding that he be put in a box, the chorus did in fact literally put him in a box, where Colin/Iago was trapped for a good fifteen minutes of stage time. This reversal – reminiscent of the now-classic opening scene of Alice Birch’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again with its reversal of gendered sexual language – used its absurdism to make clear the aggressions faced by those who are continually subjected to the questioning of entitled people about ‘where exactly do you come from’ and ‘what are you?’
This wasn’t a one-sided attack on the ‘Shakespearean’ actors, though. Both Nothello and Desdeknowhow were going through their own journey of coming into their own identities. During the play’s first half, before the two twins became aware of one another, Desdeknowhow appeared in a number of monologues where she was preparing for ‘an audition. A casting. A half-casteing’. She embraced and was unsettled by the contradiction – identified as beautiful, pretty, embodying both sides of a heritage; and yet neither, un-pin-downable, not quite right. She wanted to see herself on TV; she had to settle for understudying. Around her, four of the young women from the community chorus celebrated her identity in words that appeared to be drawn from the cast’s own experience, first in a series of foodstuffs (‘spaghetti korma, roti and chips’), then in slurs. The sheer volume and creativity of the metaphors and slurs used to describe mixed-race people drew from Coventry’s ‘melting pot’ and quickly became exhausting; Desdeknowhow did not know how to describe herself, and the pressure to do so was part of what prevented her from being born.
Nothello, too, had his own stereotypes to get to grips with. He confronted his ‘father’, Otis, who earlier had snarled at Nothello to get out of the way, to stop interrupting his one chance to play a classical leading role. Nothello tried to confront his father about being a ‘coconut’ – and Otis was happy to accept that Othello is a coconut, a white author wearing a Black man’s skin, and that Othello is fundamentally white. But Otis had his own truth to lay down before Nothello – that he was a gay man, and that if Nothello thought that Othello’s anti-miscegenation was bad, he should try Grindr. Nothello’s homophobic angst at the revelation that his father was gay turned the tables on the young man, as did the revelation that Otis and Colin were married and planning to have children. As Otis put it to Nothello, in pursuing his own ideas of what it meant to be ‘both’, he was falling into his own stereotypes.
And so, surprisingly, but beautifully and encouragingly – especially given that this was a play put together as a community project by professional and amateur actors working together, representing their Coventry – the answers came from an embrace of queer identities. Nothello and Desdeknowhow staged their version of the play – in which an equally matched Othello and Desdemona celebrated their love, had their friend Iago be best man, and were embraced by their families. They also then embraced their own identities, with Cain and Powell appearing to speak as themselves as well as for their characters, celebrating their own words for their racial identity (or even disclaiming words altogether) and their sexual identities; ‘am I trans?’ asked Nothello/Cain as he imagined a woman writer inside his male body, before deciding not to put a label on it. And then, as they were born into the world, they were surrounded by the community chorus, dancing in configurations of Black and white, man and woman, man and man, old and young. The evening concluded in celebrations – joyful, accepting, defying the boxes and categorisations and endless questioning – simply being in their own bodies on their own terms, with the prejudice of Shakespeare finally banished.
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