Stewart plays Othello the Moor in his own white skin, bald head scarred with a savage-looking tattoo, while his new young wife, Desdemona, his destroyer, Iago, and the ruling nobility of Venice, where the play begins, are African Americans. The stage couldn’t be more obviously set for some daring, stinging race-reversal, but the potential dynamite fizzles -- largely because race prejudice is only one of several dramatic elements in the script and won’t stand up to being made into what the play is “about.” Of all the characters, only Iago and Desdemona’s father (Darrell Carey) make racially disparaging remarks about Othello. Everyone else either speaks well of him or is mute on the subject. (Even Iago never makes racial sneers at Othello when he’s speaking his mind directly to the audience in his soliloquies: Like any cynic, he plays the race card when it suits him.)
Though lines have been modified to conform to the production (since the soldiers use guns, “Put up your bright swords or the dew will rust them” becomes “Put up your bright arms . . .” and so on), the insults to Othello are left as written and Stewart’s Othello is sneered at as black. For a white audience to see a white actor and character scorned in vicious racist terms could have been a scathing theater experience, but the whole issue just seems confused. What is the audience supposed to think when Stewart, an actor whose mouth is like a slit in his face, is derided with the remark “thick lips”? Or when, pale pate gleaming, he announces in the plummiest of English accents, “Haply, for I am black . . . “? Or when a black actor castigates Othello for his dark-skinned ugliness? If the purpose was to show how foolish and empty racial derogations are, how they’re just words, the device misfires. Racial derogations end up seeming meaningless, even harmless -- surely not what Kelly intended.
So though the Venetian senators look at Othello in disdain and disgust when they find he’s married Desdemona, and the Venetian soldiers, who are black, razz the Cypriot troops, who are white and wear funny-looking orange uniforms, that’s about the extent to which the production grapples with race relations. Fortunately, the play, indifferent to present-day graftings, rolls on its magnificent, terrible way, to dash the audience on the rocks of terror and pity.
Othello, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Jude Kelly. Set and costumes, Robert Innes Hopkins; lights, Frances Aronson; composer, Michael Ward; fights, Rick Sordelet. With Craig Wallace, Michael W. Howell, George Causil, Chad L. Coleman, William Badgett, R. Emery Bright, George F. Grant, Kate Skinner. At the Shakespeare Theatre through Jan. 4. Call 202-393-2700.