Janet Suzman’s “Othello” and its Interpretation: Apartheid and Black Man Sexuality

In her 1987 staging of “Othello” at the marketplace Theatre in South Africa, Janet Suzman intended to make a pertinent creative and cultural declaration about both the political system of Apartheid and its deep racial foundations. Recorded on video for dissemination abroad, Suzman’s production is unique both in its depiction of sexuality and in its placement of Othello, played by John Kani, a small-set native South African whose first language is Xhosa. Suzman worked here to both attack an unjust system she abhored and to overthrow the cultural story of white supremacy and black savagery which cultivated it.

While Othello first appears on phase in Act I, scene ii, his real introduction to the audience comes somewhat later on. Suzman redacted much of this scene, leaving it as a brief segue in between the prompting incident of the first scene and the showdown in the third scene. Othello’s entrance here is extremely controlled. He languidly slips onstage with black-clad Iago, a lot more animated figure, who merely asks him, “I hope you, sir,/ Are you fast wed?” as a significant, foreboding strain plays in the background.

Othello stops briefly and raids a wall facing perpendicularly from the audience as Iago walks around him. The video cuts to a close-up of Othello’s expression. In the very first second of the shot, Iago’s body quickly moves past Othello’s face, obscuring him briefly. Othello gradually cocks his head to the side, then looks off pensively with a single rose held up near his bearded chin. As Othello moves his head, the audience’s attention is contacted us to Kani’s ideal eye (in which he is blind), whose focus does not move as the star adjusts his glance with his left pupil. In the last moment of the shot, Othello smiles broadly as if his action to Iago, 12 lines in the play’s initial text, has been converted into one short series of subtle facial movements.

Cassio and some officers get in all of a sudden from throughout the stage, lit under a dark blue light that covers everyone on phase except for Iago and Othello, who are lit up by a more natural light in the background. An unsettling sound of pet dogs barking plays under the repeating dramatic strain. Othello presents them as “the servants of the Duke and my leftenant” then walks down to the foreground of the stage with Iago, out under the consuming blue light. Cassio breathlessly informs Othello of the Duke’s call, and Othello’s reaction of “I will but spend a word here in your home” is accompanied with a congenial grin and a mild punch. Presently Othello reemerges to deal with Brabanzio and his officers.

In sharp contrast to the dark blue lighting of the first 2 scenes, the Duke’s chamber of Act I, scene iii is lit up with abundant and clear red shades. Fittingly, the scene is reminiscent of a Spanish Inquisition. The Duke’s throne, a symbol of both power and judgment, is the central physical element of the setting. Torches installed on the walls off to the side develop hectic shadow plays as characters move around in the back of the phase. The anonymous Senators are dressed in similar crimson bathrobes, similar to a Cardinal’s attire. Even the color of the extra furnishings in the Duke’s room matches that of the Cardinals’ dress.

This is exactly the environment in which Suzman has picked to place Othello’s dramatic intro. By having actually done away with the majority of Othello’s discussion in the preceding two scenes, and by having actually drowned out the star’s appearance in those scenes with dim blue lighting, Suzman has actually increased the significance of Othello’s fully-lit intro before the Duke’s court and prior to the audience.

Othello’s arrival is presented with a brusque, “Here comes the moor,” as Kani positions himself in the foreground across from the Duke’s throne. After listening to Brabanzio’s desperate hysteria, the Duke seats himself, and the males assemble like jurors in 2 lines on either side of him. When triggered, at last, to affirm in his own defense, Othello dramatically pauses and turns initially to Cassio, then at last to the Duke. In beginning his speech, Kani pronounces each word with a sluggish, intentional inflection, his accent unmistakable in the clipped cadence and distinct pronunciation of his speech: “Many [beat] PO-tent [beat] tomb [beat] and rev-rend [beat] signors.” With dignity and diplomatically then, Othello pleads his case prior to the Duke’s individuals, who have called him out on the criminal activities of both dark magic and hybrid, and before the South African audience itself.

The seriousness of these charges was lost on neither Suzman nor the audience at the time. Suzman, in discussing the history of her production, composed of the repeal of the Immorality Act, a notorious Apartheid law prohibiting relations in between whites and non-whites, just a couple of years prior to her play was staged. In this context, the prohibiting Duke and his Senators have actually been effectively painted as signs of inquisition in the South African Apartheid state. Similarly, Kani, whose accent is a significant departure from those of every other entertainer in the play, has by the conclusion of this scene end up being strongly related to black South Africans facing the mistrust and injustice of state organizations.

In addition to fulfilling the clearly South African Othello, the audience is also presented to the play’s fairly heavy sexual content in scene iii. Under Iago’s look, Othello and Desdemona share an intense kiss, one whose length and significance are stressed in the film version of the play by an intercut of the shot, drawn from a various angle, where the video camera rapidly focuses on the pair’s faces. Mutual expressions of desire such as these are prominent in several later scenes. For example, at Othello’s entryway in Act II, scene i, he descends a staircase as Desdemona ascends to fulfill him; the movie version records the intimacy of their constant approaches with alternating shots from the points-of-view of the two. They embrace, and Othello quickly kisses Desdemona’s neck and left ear prior to the two share another long kiss; consequently, Iago relies on the audience and nods his head in an expression of cynicism and disgust. In Act III, scene iii, Othello, having been made nervous and suspicious of his other half by Iago by this point, kisses Desdemona by surprise with animated intensity.

The lavish sexuality and the mutual affection in between Desdemona and Othello showcased in Suzman’s production trivialize the anxieties about interracial relations held by lots of white South Africans. By emphasizing this vivid physical romance so early, Suzman puts the intimacy between the 2 at the fore and signals to the audience that the raw sexuality between Othello and Desdemona is a dominant theme of their relationship and of the play itself. By showing this sexuality starkly at the play’s outset, Suzman has immediately removed the concern of whether or not relations in between a black guy and a white lady can be thought about “ethical” or “best” and forces the audience to consider why this kiss might be considered offending or vulgar in certain quarters of South African society. Hence, the play works to expose the absurdity of these views.

There is, furthermore, an intent to utilize art to challenge these regressive social mores. Suzman wrote of her desire for a play that “may speak not simply to us as stars however to our anguished nation,” and her selection of “Othello,” a play deeply rooted in the Western canon and including a romantic mixed-race relationship, is no coincidence. In stressing and improving the sexual content of Shakespeare’s play, Suzman is turning European culture against Eurocentric views. Think of how small-minded a conservative Afrikaner would appear criticizing a production “Othello” for showing a love in between a black man and a white woman. The reality Kani is a native South African makes this a lot more intriguing, and too more appropriate.

Simply as these representations of sexuality challenge the audience, they also challenge Iago, who appears troubled by the scenes he witnesses. Richard Haines’ Iago is a large, physically-dominating bad guy who deftly rubs Othello’s fears of racial inferiority and sexual marginalization. It is this Iago who represents the most unpleasant of white South African racists who maintain the stereotype and worry of black savagery and sexual strength. It is Iago who, at the end of the play, gets Suzman’s inventive penalty of being stabbed in the crotch by the “savage” Othello of Act V, scene ii. On this scene, Barbara Hodgon writes:

[O] nce [Othello] goes into the chamber– nude to the waste, barefoot, and using black harem-like pants– costume codes a go back to “native” good manners, and his motions parody the primitive animalism so wanted by the white fictional. Turning murder into ritual sacrifice, Kani’s Othello carries out the “other”: at once a substitute for the stereotype and its shadow, he all at once stimulates and deflects the stories of black males’ violence against females that accede to the colonizer’s wildest dreams. (48 )

In this parody of the worry of a black savage stereotype, Kani’s Othello symbolically castrates Iago as his final act before committing suicide, an act which, according to Hodgon, operates as “not just reversing power relations between black and white bodies however actually enacting an even deeper political and social fear of white disempowerment” (49 ). This action not only fully realizes the white male’s worry of a black male’s imagined sexual prowess, but also works as a symbolic attack on the supremacy of white men in South Africa. Othello’s attack recommends that the genuine damaging force in the play has not been the jealousy, hostility, or sexuality of a black male, but rather the paranoid sexuality of a white male– the villain is not brief and humble John Kani, but the large and dominant Richard Haines. Othello, thus, strikes at the really source and in doing so overthrows that really myth of black savagery

Suzman’s production required the audience to ponder the very political circumstance which bore it and that made a centuries-old work questionable. Suzman wielded “Othello” as a blunderbuss versus not only the political truths of Apartheid, however the social foundations of the race relations which fostered that system. In parodying the fears of black male sexuality held by lots of white South Africans– especially through the casting of John Kani, Suzman’s “real thing”– this production effectively trivialized such views while simultaneously maintaining an impassioned attack against them.

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