On Monday, March 7, the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University hosted the conversation, “Playing Othello,” as part of their year-long program “Such Sweet Thunder: Ellington Plays Shakespeare–Love and Power in Adaptation.” Deputy News Editor Paulina Rodriguez and Deputy Events Editor Ava Slocum attended the discussion at Columbia’s Miller Theater.

Shakespeare’s plays and jazz music have a lot in common, including “combination of team spirit and informality, of academic knowledge and humor,” wrote Duke Ellington in 1957. The Center for Jazz Studies’s discussion “Playing Othello” highlighted the shared creative and intellectual elements that bring these two bodies of work together across time and place, while also considering the racism and discrimination present in traditional Shakespearean productions.

Monday’s conversation featured actors André Holland, Chukwudi Iwuji, and John Douglas Thompson, known for their respective roles in Moonlight, The Underground Railroad, and Mare of Easttown as well as numerous theater credits. All three of them have played Othello–sometimes out of true interest in the play or a desire for a challenging role. Iwuji and Thompson, however, had nearly identical experiences of being asked to play Othello because they were the only Black actor in their college theater program. Arizona State University professor and Shakespeare performance scholar Ayanna Thompson, joined by Columbia’s own James Shapiro, Professor of English and Comparative Literature, moderated the discussion, which focused on the three actors’ experiences playing the part of Othello and their reflections on inhabiting the role as a Black man in the modern day.

“Such Sweet Thunder,” Columbia’s campus-wide series of public events is slated to take place throughout the rest of the spring semester. The series takes its title from the 1957 jazz suite Such Sweet Thunder, composed by Duke Ellington and Billy Strahorn and based on the unforgettable plays and characters of William Shakespeare. Before the “Playing Othello” conversation began, three students from the Louis Armstrong Jazz Performance Program played the brief overture to Such Sweet Thunder on drums, piano, and guitar. Robert G. O’Meally, Director of the Center for Jazz Studies, stated in his introduction to the program that Ellington’s music besides being inspired by the content of Shakespeare’s work, also reflects many of the “tone parallels” and questions about race, gender, and geography that factor into Othello as well as its modern interpretations.

Moderator James Shapio started off the conversation between Holland, Iwuji, and Thompson by asking them about their individual journeys to Shakespeare and the role of Othello. Iwuji described hearing a BBC broadcast of Twelfth Night on the radio as a child in his native Lagos, Nigeria. Later, as a boarding school student in Britain, he had a wonderful, inspiring English literature teacher whom he credits to his becoming a Shakespearean actor.

Unlike Iwuji, Holland and Thompson’s first experiences of Shakespeare were not through academia: Holland started playing Shakespearean roles in college and Thompson (who recently played Shylock in The Merchant of Venice at the Theatre for a New Audience) saw his first Shakespeare play as an adult, before he started acting professionally. All three actors found their early experiences of playing roles such as Hamlet and Horatio to be exciting and illuminating; however, all three played Othello for the first time because a director, finding a dearth of options for the role, asked them to do it. “I was Black and qualified,” Iwuji remarked with a chuckle.

Even though playing Othelllo was not his decision, Thompson mentioned that he found the role interesting: despite their issues, “we don’t discard [Shakespeare’s] plays,” he said, “because they are so vital to our evolution.” However, having the right director, all three men acknowledged, is crucial to making any performance of Othello place social commentary front and center rather than ignoring the play’s racist themes, as was common with productions of the past.

Since his university days, Iwuji has played Othello only a few more times, once agreeing to do it only because the director shared his vision for the character. Iwuji, interestingly, described the play Othello as “the greatest love story ever written,” but explained that Othello and Desdemona are happy for “only a scene and a half before it all goes wrong.” Nevertheless, he wanted to center his portrayal of Othello on what he considers to be the most poignant, emotional element of the character: Othello’s love for Desdemona, which bravely crosses race and class boundaries before Iago poisons Othello’s mind against her. When asked to play Othello, Iwuji asked the director if they were able to, “tell, in just that scene and a half, the greatest love story.” The director’s assurance that they could was what convinced him to take on the role.

Thompson suggested that “the only directors good for these plays” are women, because women directors understand the experience of being marginalized and othered. According to Thompson, “instead of making the play about Iago, [women directors] will fight to make it about Othello.”

Iago is a fascinating and important character; however, the play is called Othello for a reason. As part of their discussion, Holland, Iwuji, and Thompson took turns reading passages from several of Othello’s key speeches in the play, which highlighted not only the eloquence and beauty of speech that Shakespeare gives this character, but also the crucial importance of staging productions that pay attention to the prejudice and racially-motivated manipulation that Othello experiences, rather than focusing only on the cruel cleverness of Iago.

Holland described his experience playing Othello at the Globe Theatre in 2018 opposite Mark Rylance as Iago, an undeniably important moment for Holland’s career. Given Rylance’s renown as a famous English actor and the first director of the new Shakespeare’s Globe, much of the audience’s and critical attention naturally fell on him. However, this recent production was, in part, another example of an Othello production centering Iago even in this day and age, and honing in on the devious character’s ability to trick Othello rather than fully examining the effects of this trickery on Othello. Similarly, considering the historical privilege of white actors over actors of color, it is not surprising that the biggest star in a production of Othello has traditionally played Iago.

Professor Ayanna Thompson brought up the interesting point that, in order for a production of Othello to succeed, it must paint Othello and Desdemona as intelligent, capable people who are successful in their own right, instead of merely gullible people who easily fall victim to Iago’s ruses. Like the actors, she mentioned that finding this more nuanced balance is in part a question of having the right director; however, she explained that modern direction of the play still tends to be stilted. No woman of color, for instance, has ever directed Othello on “any major stage,” and productions often do not center the wit and intelligence of Othello’s character that comes across through his fascinating speeches.

Professor Thompson, before, has gone on the record as saying that Othello should simply not  be performed in the twenty-first century; instead, she has argued for modern theaters putting a moratorium on its production. Iwuji and John Douglas Thompson both seemed to disagree with this opinion, citing the beauty of Shakespeare’s work and the transformational power of theater that raises questions.

Holland, however, mentioned that he has no plans to play Othello in the future. Unless we can find a way of presenting the play and portraying the character in a consciously anti-racist, social change-promoting way, he agreed with Professor Thompson that directors should avoid Othello unless they are planning on a significantly unique interpretation.

At the beginning of the conversation, O’Meally cited Duke Ellington’s quote, “Somehow, I suspect that if Shakespeare were alive today, he might be a jazz fan himself.” Both Shakespeare and Ellington, he explained, sought to represent events and historical geographies while analyzing the social norms of the times in which they lived. The notes on the program for “Playing Othello,” meanwhile, ask, “How do these questions of love and power, so urgent in our time, affect our responsibilities as students, educators, and global citizens?” Through grounding Shakespeare’s work in the modern day by analyzing the outdated historical and cultural elements still present in its production, Holland, Iwuji, and Thompson, in their conversation, provided some answers to these questions about history, society, and adaptation as they intersect in the modern age.

More information about this semester’s “Such Sweet Thunder” programming, including a calendar of upcoming events, is available on Columbia’s website.

(from left to right) Shapiro, Iwuji, Thompson, Holland, and Thompson in conversation via Ava Slocum