Shakespeare’s “Othello” reimagined in an East Asian dystopian future

  • The Griot Theatre's adaptation of "Othello" imagines a dystopian future where Asia is the remaining world power. All photos by Ronald Browne.

  • "We wanted to show a future where women are senators and soldiers, and central to the stories we care about," said Director Malik B. El-Amin of the Griot Theatre's production of "Othello."

  • Hazel Lozano as Iago in the Griot Theatre's production of "Othello."

Location

Alhambra , CA United States

The Griot Theatre’s reinterpretation of William Shakespeare’s classic “Othello” is playing at The Actor’s Company through October 7. This adaption is set in an East Asian dystopian future, while the entire cast is comprised of actors of color and features women in key roles, including the villain Iago. In an e-mail interview, the Alhambra Source speaks to Griot Theatre’s Artistic Director Malik B. El-Amin who produced, directed and acts in the production.

This is the first time I’ve seen “Othello” with kungfu in it, and with an all-Asian (with the exception of Othello) cast. What changes were made from the original version of Shakespeare’s “Othello,” and why?

Malik B. El-Amin: There were changes to the script, changes to what might be viewed as traditional casting and vision for the world of the play that also diverged from tradition.

To begin, I chose to set the world in a post-apocalyptic future where Asia is the remaining world power. This allows an exploration of Othello’s otherness while still creating opportunities for other actors of color within the play. We established China as the central power, with other nations such as the Philippines and Samoa represented, as well. This aligns well with Shakespeare’s original plot of Venice (Italy) being a world power while much of the play takes place in neighboring Cyprus.

Because our goal is to make Shakespeare accessible to modern audiences, the script was cut to remove minor characters, plot devices and sometimes just unclear language. We changed pronouns to reflects roles, such as Iago, now being played by women rather than men. And we added some text to reflect the various backgrounds of the actors and the characters they were bringing to the play. For example, Othello is a Moor and Muslim, by definition. So, we added the “Call to Prayer” (Azan) to the top of the play and also had Othello use short Arabic phrases throughout the play. Similarly, to establish China’s dominance, we translated short moments of the play into Mandarin to allow the Chinese actors to pull from their backgrounds. The inclusion of martial arts was an extension of this. Finally, two of the Filipino actors drop into dialect when they share a private moment alone onstage.

What kind of story are you trying to tell with this particular kind of casting?

We wanted to show a future where women are senators and soldiers and central to the stories we care about. We wanted to project a future where even though racial problems still exists, people from different backgrounds are free to bring their whole selves to their work and their relationships. We wanted to explore the idea that concepts of “race relations” or “racial tensions” don’t automatically mean black and white, but also encompass many other complex relationships between peoples.

Who wrote this condensed version of the original script?

I made the cuts and additions to the script. Paul Wong, who plays the Duke of Venice, Montano and Lodovico provided the Mandarin translation.

Why did Griot Theatre choose to produce “Othello,” and why is it set in an “East Asian dystopian future”?

Othello is one of Shakespeare’s greatest and most mature plays. It’s a play I’ve personally admired for over two decades. And yet, for an organization like Griot Theatre, a traditional production would have been antithetical to our mission, with only one actor of color and only two women in the cast. Shifting the world of the play allowed us explore this great work and some new possibilities and meaning with our particular casting.

Can you tell us about Griot Theatre and its mission?

Everyone has a story to tell. That’s what we do in theatre. Yet women, artists of color, and artists with physical disabilities have been left out of the conversation – their voices unheard – in traditional theatre.

We believe that theatre performs two functions: it reminds us who we’ve been and it teaches us who we have the potential to become. When our stories lack diversity, our past remains deficient and our future less bright. Griot Theatre exists to give voice to these untold stories, by creating a forum for artists from underrepresented groups to interpret theatre in new ways.

Griot (pronounced GREE-oh) is of French origin and is a term used throughout West Africa to describe a story teller who preserves the history and culture of a village or community.

What do you hope audiences come away with when they see this production of “Othello”?

We hope to serve two audiences: for those with little to no experience with Shakespeare, we hope they walk away thinking that this stuff may be more exciting than they thought; for those who are already very familiar with the work, we hope we’ve given them a new and fresh take on this familiar play. Overall, we hope audiences will believe as we do, that reflecting our society in the art we create, isn’t just a good thing to do, but that it can be revealing and make the work more meaningful.

What has been the greatest challenge so far with this production?

The greatest challenge has been personal, but has affected the entire production. For the first time in Griot Theatre’s history, I’ve produced, directed and appeared in the same play. While that allows for a singular vision to come across in all aspects of the play, it’s a lot for one person to do. It’s been an incredibly rewarding challenge – one I’d advise be taken up only on rare occasion.

Best moments?

We’ve had so many rich moments throughout this process, but I’d say my favorite was early on when we were sitting at the table discussing the play and came up with the idea of incorporating everyone’s background into the play: the Mandarin, the Arabic, the Filipino dialect. Unlike many of the other elements you’ll see in the production, that was not my original idea. But a comment from one actor led to a question from me and several suggestions from other cast members. We talk about theatre being collaborative, and this moment was a great and refreshing example of that.

Anything else?

We haven’t talked much about disability, and it doesn’t factor much into this production. But I do wear a cochlear implant to hear and am deaf without it. This is only subtly alluded to in the play when my soldiers always approach my right side to speak to me. But my hearing loss and receipt of the cochlear implant were instrumental in the formation of Griot Theatre and the work that we do. We continue to look for ways to create opportunities for those with disabilities to shine both onstage and behind the scenes.

“Othello” by William Shakespeare

Adapted, directed, and produced by Malik B. El-Amin

Featuring: Evie Abat, Cesar Cipriano, Malik B. El-Amin, Alexandra Hellquist, Hazel Lozano, Napoleon Tavale, Paul Wong

Presented by Griot Theatre

Performance times: Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 4 p.m., through Oct. 7.

Venue: The Actor’s Company; 916 N. Formosa Ave. Los Angeles, CA 90046

General Admission: $25; Senior/Student Tickets: $17.50; www.GriotTheatre.org

Griot Theatre believes theatre should be accessible to all audiences. For details on complimentary tickets, email Access@GriotTheatre.org.

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