William Shakespeare’s “Othello” is the story of a black man — that would be Othello — who arrives in Venice, marries a white woman and then is manipulated into believing that she’s cheating on him. Convinced of her guilt, he smothers her; after it’s revealed that she’s innocent, he kills himself.
So when historical novelist Tracy Chevalier got her chance to update the story, she decided the perfect setting would be … an elementary school playground.
Chevalier (“Girl With a Pearl Earring”) chose “Othello” as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project, a series of books by modern authors that place some of Shakespeare’s best-known works in modern times. Chevalier’s contribution is her latest novel, “New Boy,” excerpts from which she will read and discuss at the Folger Shakespeare Library on Thursday.
“It was surprisingly simple,” Chevalier says of moving the Bard’s story to the playground of a D.C. elementary school in the 1970s. “I decided that the issues of the play are about an outsider and how a society treats someone who is different from them. And the thing about playgrounds is they’re kind of an enclosed world and everything is heightened there.”
In “New Boy,” the Othello character is Osei, a diplomat’s son who has lived all over the world. Osei becomes smitten with Dee, one of the school’s popular girls — much to the consternation of playground bully Ian. Ian sets into motion a series of events that, over the course of one day, shatter the illusion that childhood is easy.
The time and the place of her novel are quite personal for Chevalier. “That’s when I was 11, and where I was when I was 11,” says the author, who grew up in Takoma and now lives in London. “It’s a curious experience, being given characters in a story. I usually make it all up myself, and I thought, ‘I need to make something about this a Tracy novel.’ So a way of doing that was making the setting be a part of my background.”
Chevalier chose D.C. for other reasons. Shakespeare’s play starts in Venice, which “at the time was seen as a sophisticated trading city,” she says. “I thought Washington would work as a stand-in for Venice; at the time, [D.C.] was a more international city than a lot of other places. And yet people still [had] a hard time accepting people who [were] different from them. There’s something about D.C. that has a veneer of being influential and political and international, but it was a surprisingly provincial place.”
Setting “New Boy” 40 years ago also gave Chevalier and her readers a small gift. “It’s such a powerful story and it’s so painful,” she says. “I wanted to be able to give us all a little bit of distance.”
Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 E. Capitol St. SE; Thu., 7:30 p.m., $15.