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Perspectives On Shakespeare: Sir Patrick Stewart Plays White Othello In 1997 Washington Theatre Production

SHAKESPEARE'S OTHELLO was conceived as a black character, but in 1997 Sir Patrick Stewart caused controversy after being cast as a 'race reversed' white Moor. By Ben Arogundade. Mar.21.2021.

FROM BLACK TO WHITE: Actor Sir Patrick Stewart of Star Trek and X-Men fame, stars as a white Othello in director Jude Kelly's 1997 theatre production of William Shakespeare's famous play. Photo by Carol Rosegg/AP.

ALTHOUGH ENGLISH PLAYWRIGHT William Shakespeare originally wrote the character of Othello as a black man, the role has traditionally been played by white actors in blackface, beginning with Richard Burbage in the first ever performance in London's Whitehall in November 1604. Ira Aldridge was the first black actor ever to be cast in the role of the Moor back in 1826. Ever since then most Othello's have been black.


SIR PATRICK STEWART RECAST AS WHITE OTHELLO

Theatre productions of Shakespeare's play underwent a metamorphosis in the 1990s, as a new generation of irreverent young directors began breaking with Shakespeare’s classical tradition in favour of contemporary interpretations which re-cast the play in the present, complete with new settings, modern costumes and radical approaches to casting. One notable example starred film and theatre actor Sir Patrick Stewart, better known for his roles in Star Trek: Next Generation and X-Men. In what had become an exclusively African American role in the US, Stewart caused a stir in November 1997 when he was cast as the first white Othello for more than half a century.


PHOTO NEGATIVE WHITE OTHELLO

Stewart featured in a radical re-interpretation of the play at the Shakespeare Theatre, Washington D.C. In what was termed a “photo negative” production by British director Jude Kelly, all the other cast members aside from Stewart were black. This whitening of Othello — or “race reversing” as it is sometimes called — was intended to both challenge stereotypes and to reflect the endlessly adaptive nature of Shakespeare’s work. To give the performance a modern spin, the male characters were decked out in combat fatigues, and Stewart’s shaved head was accessorised with a hooped earring and a tattoo of a serpent.


WHITE OTHELLO REDUX

In July 2015 Stewart announced that he was to reprise his role as white Othello, twenty years after playing it in Washington, this time in his own London production of Shakespeare's play. “In the big picture, everyone should be able to play anything, and I am against embargoes on actors playing roles that differ from their own ethnicity or gender,” he stated. Although Stewart’s sentiments are to be applauded, the reality within the industry is that black actors are seldom given such latitude when they apply for roles that may have been written or envisaged for white actors.

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RACE REVERSED: Sir Patrick Stewart plays a white Othello in the 1997 production of Shakespeare’s play in Washington DC. He was the first white Othello for more than 50 years. All the other cast members were black. Desdemona was played by Patrice Johnson.

*SIR PATRICK STEWART & OTHELLO - ACCORDING TO GOOGLE SEARCH


500

The number of people worldwide who Google the question, “Is Othello black?”, each month.


700

The number of people worldwide who Google the phrase, “Sir Patrick Stewart as white Othello”, each month.


*All figures for “Sir Patrick Stewart & Othello - According to Google Search”, supplied by Google. Stats include global totals for laptop and desktop computers and mobile devices.

SIR PATRICK STEWART ADDRESSES THE OXFORD UNION

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