Rethinking 'Othello' In The Age Of Obama

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Director Peter Sellars sets his modern take on the Shakespeare classic in D.C., and says he found inspiration in recent history: Obama's election and inauguration, and the nomination and confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. "In the age of Obama," Sellars says, "This play needs to yield new meanings."

NEAL CONAN, host:

In New York City, there's a new production of Shakespeare's "Othello" directed by Peter Sellars. The cast includes Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Ortiz. Sellars said that, quote, "In the age of Obama, this play needs to yield new meanings." He starts with both time and place. Sellars sets the play in Washington, D.C., rethinks and reinterprets the principal relationship of Shakespeare's play, and he casts a Latino as Othello.

We'll talk with the acclaimed director in just a moment. If you've seen the production, if you have questions, our phone number: 800-989-8255, email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now from the studios of WNYC, our member station in New York City, is Peter Sellars. And it's great to have you with us on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. PETER SELLARS (Director, "Othello"): It's great to be here, Neal. Thanks a lot.

CONAN: And I have to ask you about a quote that I saw from you: I hated this play. All my life, I loved Shakespeare and I hated this play. Why did you hate "Othello?"

Mr. SELLARS: Well, "Othello" always seem so badly motivated. It's this black guy surrounded by white people, not getting it, making the wrong decision and destroying all hope of happiness. And it just feels so crude. And so, it's such an unpleasant, unhappy story. So I've always resisted it mightily. And then it was actually Toni Morrison, who read me the riot act, and said, go back and look at the language Shakespeare is using because it is the language the world uses to make you abandon your own deepest principles and the thing you love the most and buy into something that was never real. And we've all been there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SELLARS: Our country is really testing this proposition. And so, the play turns out to be astonishingly relevant. The one thing that we won't live to see anymore is a single black man in a room surrounded by white people. I mean, what's marvelous is the 21st century is finally here. We have new images of leadership. We have new interest in not people of color, single people, but as communities, as - understanding that our voices are rich and diverse, and our identities are rich and diverse. And suddenly, this play has leapt to life as soon as we move the old cliches out.

CONAN: I've seen productions of "Othello" where they reversed the casting and have everybody in the cast be black, except for a white man as Othello. What's the difference here?

Mr. SELLARS: Well, really, what's going on here is John Ortiz is one of the great Latino actors. He's stepping in as Othello and it just moves the signs of blackness away from the role. And meanwhile, there are two other key Latino actors on stage. Meanwhile, Cassio and, of course, most importantly, the president himself is African-American and the youngest person on the stage. And that sense that the sign of blackness has moved to a new place and is operating differently in a new period, and there's a new dynamic. And it's that nobody's just an isolated one of these, one of those. It really is a very exciting mix of people. And, of course, once you don't have one black person, you get that, of course, no two black people are alike at all.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SELLARS: And, you know, the whole idea of even thinking of someone as just a black person is slightly problematic. And we've moved past it, thank goodness. So we're into this situation where it's thick. And you've got to just deal with people as people. And you can see their relations to each other, who's supporting whom because it's the family, it's the community, it's that, but also you can see frequently very deep within the community are very, very profound divides and very intense arguments. And so, there's not just simply automatic solidarity.

And this is a play of people just competitive, moving, fighting. And that fierceness of the play also really begins to touch the quality, shall we say, of public life right now in America, where there's not much quarter given, and where you have to check on what people are really saying - where is this coming from, what is this about? And you also have to not only figure out what the facts are, but as Shakespeare shows you in this play, the facts stopped mattering a while ago because people are all using certain facts to get where they want to go. And it's what people turn the facts into that is the real, really astounding new reality.

CONAN: But what about that principal relationship? We have this idea of "Othello" as sort of this clueless black guy easily duped by one of the most nefarious villains ever.

Mr. SELLARS: Well, I think, you know, we're in a period where people need villains. You know, you want point to somebody and say they're evil, when in fact, you know, everybody's actually human and most people think what they're doing is right, which is the most appalling part…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SELLARS: …I mean the hardest part to deal with. And actually, there's not just villainy. But Shakespeare goes out of his way to show you Iago as somebody whose unhappiness, whose loneliness, whose weirdness, whose humiliation, and the fact that his wife really is sleeping with Othello…

CONAN: There's some righteous anger there, yeah.

Mr. SELLARS: The anger is real and deep. And you just can't say, oh, he's an evil person, you know? And that kind of bush talk is not helpful. The world is not divided into evil and good people. Every human being is divided into good and evil. That's what's so fierce about what we are and why we're fighting in our own souls for ourselves moment by moment. Any one of us is capable of the wrong and worst decision, badly motivated, and really for the wrong reasons, or doing something selfish, unselfish, amazing, transcendent, joyous that, you know, brings the world forward. It is a struggle within every human being.

And what is so beautiful is to see Iago as also idealistic, in fact so bitter exactly because idealism is so deep. And to see Othello as not simply a, you know, an innocent who's entrapped but also somebody who has been, you know, living rather dangerously and not completely honest about a lot of his own activities. All of that set within the framework of the military, where the black and white is what it means. You know, Shakespeare is not using black and white as skin tone. He's using it as people who are thinking in black and white and can't deal with ambiguity, strange things, where both things are true, this question where the world actually is not in black and white.

Meanwhile, Iago didn't get promoted so he's rotated out of the military and is like those folks who, you know, as you know, leave those high level, particularly a top secret positions with the Rolodexes intact and then start making money in the civilian world but without the code of ethics that's required when you're in uniform. And so…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I think we call it (unintelligible). Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SELLARS: So it's also, you know, the breakfast room at the Hyatt in Alexandria where those arms deals are being made. It's a fierce place.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Our guest, of course, is Peter Sellars, the director of "Othello" presented at the Public Theater and the LAByrinth Theater at the NYU Skirball Center.

And we'll begin with Connie. Connie calling us from Grand Rapids.

CONNIE (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Connie. Go ahead, please.

CONNIE: Well, what I was curious about when I heard you say that there was a Latino playing Othello, I wanted to know if the director could comment on kind of public perception of Moors at the time the play was written versus public perception of Latinos at this time. And I can take the answer off the air.

CONAN: Okay, Connie. Thank you.

Mr. SELLARS: Oh, that's great. You know, Shakespeare uses the word Moor all the time. And he's constantly making all kinds of puns with it, you know, more of this and less of that. He's always - he wants more. And so you're in this - the way Shakespeare thinks of Moor and, of course, as the caller has indicated, Moor is not a racial category. It's this bizarre, amazing mix that comes from a culture that was alive in the south of Spain in Shakespeare's lifetime, one of the world's richest cultures were Muslims and Jews and Christians lived and worked together in this amazing moment of harmony in the history of the world.

And that culture in the south of Spain is part Arab, part African, part European, part Mediterranean, Greek, Turk. All of these cultures found this incredible mix in the south of Spain. And it was one of the most richest moments in human history for philosophy. You know, Maimonides, for example, the great Jewish philosopher. You know, all of this comes out of this rich, rich, rich cultural moment. So Shakespeare is referencing a kind of darker skin perhaps, but also a culture that you can't call other, because like most of Latin America today, everyone is part something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SELLARS: And you can't divide it up anymore. And I always tell my students at UCLA who, you know, want to go to Europe for the summer, go to Latin America instead. It's just like Europe and it has an African beat. You know, it's -what's so cool is Latin America is European, profoundly. And it's indigenous and Indio, and it's African and it has the largest Japanese and Korean populations. I mean, what's so cool about Latin America right now and even the term Latin is it is by definition mixed. And that is by definition the world we live in. The most marvelous thing is nothing is pure, nothing is singular. All of us have complicated mixed identities.

And so this beautiful mixing - or as we imagine, the blending of the kids that Othello and Desdemona are going to have. You know, the beautiful thing, when you're part everything, you're both sides, you're the bridge between the parts of the world that are fighting. You're the human being that can move across both sides.

CONAN: I can't imagine how you saw an analogy to Barack Obama there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SELLARS: Well, you know, and that's the thing. We live in the age of Barack Obama and Tiger Woods. You know, what box are you going to check? You know, the fact is we're all more than one box. None of us fit into those boxes anymore. And that's Shakespeare's point why he writes these plays, with this extravagant, glorious poetry. Because he's into how immense a thing a single human being is. Every human being has this infinitude and magnificence and huge scope. And so Shakespeare gives them this poetry that gives them a kind of cosmic reach. And that is really what we have. You know, we are not the forms we fill out of what kind of car you drive and where you went to school. You know, our lives are about everything that's not on those forms. That's what's so powerful and that's why the art still exists.

CONAN: Peter Sellars is our guest. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Brian on the line. Brian from Louis, Delaware.

BRIAN (Caller): Hi. How are you doing, Mr. Sellars? A pleasure to talk to you.

Mr. SELLARS: Brian, a pleasure. Thanks for calling.

BRIAN: Hey, I'm curious. You've mentioned removing the sign of black from the (unintelligible) character and put in - obviously sticking in the sign of Hispanic. I'm wondering if the sort of perceived religiosity of Hispanics, at least from some perspectives, whether that played a motivational role in "Othello" sort of wanting to believe, or was that a motivation? Was that - did it ever come up in your production?

Mr. SELLARS: Oh, very much so. And I have to say Shakespeare was so interested in Christianity and all these other spiritual paths that were just coming to light for Europeans. You know, the voodoo and, you know, all these incredible syncretic things. And Shakespeare has his characters, you know, praying to all kinds of things across the night in that play. All kinds of spirits are invoked.

And, you know, all of us have, of course, our own little rituals everyday by which we are hopefully influencing future reality. For some people it's just going to Starbucks - you know, you feel better for the day and your life is centered. And you're going to be okay. You know, and that sense of what is your religion, what is your spiritual practice? How do those things mix? Shakespeare is mentioning on almost every page witchcraft or strange invocations, bizarre, very intense chanting, all these things appear throughout the play. Shakespeare was interested in many, many, many spiritual paths. And he was inviting Christianity to of course reach outside itself.

And I think with Shakespeare, the line that I love that Desdemona has at the beginning of Act Four is, All's one. You know, if you really believe in the kind of spiritual depth, all is one. And the meaning of all the paths and all of the dreams in the ocean, that ocean, of course, is what Shakespeare is writing about. And, yes, the intense spirituality and the Catholic presence is one of the most interesting things in Shakespeare. Some people thought Shakespeare might have been a Catholic. Certainly what he did see in England was the persecution of Catholics there as religious heretics. He saw torture, he saw all kinds of things - people enduring things because they were Catholics and they would not recant.

So torture also plays a role in the play. And Shakespeare shows you people willing to endure things for their deepest held beliefs. So all of those things are definitely in the mix, Brian. Thank you very much.

CONAN: And thanks...

BRIAN: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: All right. The cast you've got, as I understand, dictates a rather short run in New York. But I also gather there are plans to - for a tour.

Mr. SELLARS: Well, yes. The big hope for us is two things, one of which is because Toni Morrison did challenge me to do this play to begin with, Toni is now actually working on her own play to respond to Shakespeare. And it's going to be called "Desdemona." And she is putting in things that Shakespeare himself could not have written about the black community.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Mr. SELLARS: And also giving the women a voice. You know, for Shakespeare, the ideal woman, you know, was - you know, had all these wonderful qualities but was also silent.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SELLARS: And of course we're living in an age where women are allowed to speak and that's really not a bad thing. And so Toni is really going to give voice, and from particularly a feminist side, to the women in this play and tell the stories that Shakespeare couldn't or wouldn't tell.

Meanwhile, we'll keep working on this play. We'll come back to it across the next years. And our big hope is that after a few years we will film this production on location, in fact, and we will then film Toni Morrison's "Desdemona" and send them out to the high schools with a bunch of materials around them coming from all kinds of organizations - military organizations, organizations about women's issues, all of these things that are in the play very, very powerfully.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SELLARS: And really give the next generation - the 21st century generation - these kids who will never see the images Shakespeare was working with, give them images that are updated for their realities, for the realities of the planet they were all hoping to shape, and bring this play into its full relevance. I mean, the marvelous thing about Shakespeare - again, he's a visionary - this is - these plays have lasted through the centuries because they respond to things that every generation is hoping for and reaching towards. And they remain these kind of clarion calls, you know, out of the dark, to say keep heading towards the light, keep going towards the place, the world we all want to live in, the important thing is to imagine it and then create it. And that active imagination is what the play really invites us all to. I hope that this will be in every high school in America five years from today.

CONAN: Peter Sellars, thanks very much. And good luck with that.

Mr. SELLARS: Thanks so much.

CONAN: Peter Sellars is the director of "Othello" and joined us today from the studios at WNYC in New York.

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