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

December 10, 2020 by Essay Writer

In her 1987 staging of “Othello” at the Market Theatre in South Africa, Janet Suzman aimed to make a pertinent artistic and cultural statement about both the political system of Apartheid and its deep racial underpinnings. 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 despised and to upend the cultural narrative of white supremacy and black savagery which fostered it.

While Othello first appears on stage in Act I, scene ii, his real introduction to the audience comes slightly later. Suzman redacted much of this scene, leaving it as a short segue between the inciting incident of the first scene and the showdown in the third scene. Othello’s entrance here is very subdued. He languidly slips onstage with black-clad Iago, a much more animated figure, who simply asks him, “I pray you, sir,/ Are you fast married?” as a dramatic, foreboding strain plays in the background.

Othello pauses and leans against 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 first second of the shot, Iago’s body quickly moves past Othello’s face, obscuring him briefly. Othello slowly cocks his head to the side, then stares off pensively with a single rose held up near his bearded chin. As Othello moves his head, the viewer’s attention is called to Kani’s right eye (in which he is blind), whose focus doesn’t move as the actor adjusts his glance with his left pupil. In the final moment of the shot, Othello smiles broadly as if his response to Iago, 12 lines in the play’s original text, has been converted into one brief series of subtle facial motions.

Cassio and some officers enter suddenly from across the stage, lit under a dark blue light that covers everyone on stage except for Iago and Othello, who are illuminated by a more natural light in the background. An unsettling sound of dogs barking plays under the recurring dramatic strain. Othello introduces 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 response of “I will but spend a word here in the house” is accompanied with a congenial grin and a gentle punch. Presently Othello reemerges to face Brabanzio and his officers.

In sharp contrast to the dark blue lighting of the first two scenes, the Duke’s chamber of Act I, scene iii is illuminated with rich and clear red hues. 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 mounted on the walls off to the side create hectic shadow plays as characters move around in the back of the stage. The anonymous Senators are dressed in identical crimson robes, reminiscent of a Cardinal’s attire. Even the color of the spare furniture in the Duke’s room matches that of the Cardinals’ dress.

This is precisely the atmosphere in which Suzman has chosen to place Othello’s dramatic introduction. By having done away with most of Othello’s dialogue in the preceding two scenes, and by having drowned out the actor’s appearance in those scenes with dim blue lighting, Suzman has heightened the significance of Othello’s fully-lit introduction before the Duke’s court and before the audience.

Othello’s arrival is introduced 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 men assemble like jurors in two lines on either side of him. When prompted, at last, to testify in his own defense, Othello dramatically pauses and turns first to Cassio, then at last to the Duke. In beginning his speech, Kani pronounces each word with a slow, deliberate inflection, his accent unmistakable in the clipped cadence and distinct pronunciation of his speech: “Most [beat] PO-tent [beat] grAve [beat] and rev-rend [beat] signors.” Gracefully and diplomatically then, Othello pleads his case before the Duke’s people, who have called him out on the crimes of both dark magic and miscegenation, 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, wrote of the repeal of the Immorality Act, an infamous Apartheid law forbidding relations between whites and non-whites, just a few years before her play was staged. In this context, the forbidding Duke and his Senators have been effectively painted as symbols of inquisition in the South African Apartheid state. Similarly, Kani, whose accent is a marked departure from those of every other performer in the play, has by the conclusion of this scene become strongly identified with black South Africans facing the distrust and oppression of state institutions.

In addition to meeting the distinctly South African Othello, the audience is also introduced to the play’s relatively heavy sexual content in scene iii. Under Iago’s gaze, Othello and Desdemona share an intense kiss, one whose length and significance are emphasized in the film version of the play by an intercut of the shot, taken from a different angle, where the camera quickly zooms in on the pair’s faces. Mutual expressions of lust such as these are prominent in several later scenes. For instance, at Othello’s entrance in Act II, scene i, he descends a staircase as Desdemona ascends to meet him; the film version records the intimacy of their steady approaches with alternating shots from the points-of-view of the two. They embrace, and Othello soon kisses Desdemona’s neck and left ear before the two share another long kiss; consequently, Iago turns to the audience and nods his head in an expression of cynicism and disgust. In Act III, scene iii, Othello, having been made anxious and suspicious of his wife by Iago by this point, kisses Desdemona by surprise with animated intensity.

The lush sexuality and the mutual affection between Desdemona and Othello showcased in Suzman’s production trivialize the anxieties about interracial relations held by many white South Africans. By emphasizing this vivid physical romance so early, Suzman places the intimacy between the two 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 question of whether or not relations between a black man and a white woman can be considered “moral” or “right” and forces the audience to contemplate why this kiss might be considered offensive or vulgar in certain quarters of South African society. Thus, the play works to expose the absurdity of these views.

There is, moreover, an intention to use art to challenge these regressive social mores. Suzman wrote of her desire for a play that “might speak not just to us as actors but to our anguished country,” and her selection of “Othello,” a play deeply rooted in the Western canon and featuring a romantic mixed-race relationship, is no coincidence. In emphasizing and enhancing the sexual content of Shakespeare’s play, Suzman is turning European culture against Eurocentric views. Imagine how small-minded a conservative Afrikaner would seem criticizing a production “Othello” for showing a romance between a black man and a white woman. The fact Kani is a native South African makes this even more provocative, and as well more relevant.

Just as these depictions of sexuality challenge the audience, they as well challenge Iago, who appears perturbed by the scenes he witnesses. Richard Haines’ Iago is a large, physically-dominating villain who deftly strokes Othello’s fears of racial inferiority and sexual marginalization. It is this Iago who symbolizes the most odious of white South African racists who maintain the stereotype and fear of black savagery and sexual potency. It is Iago who, at the end of the play, receives Suzman’s inventive punishment of being stabbed in the crotch by the “savage” Othello of Act V, scene ii. On this scene, Barbara Hodgon writes:

[O]nce [Othello] enters the chamber — nude to the waste, barefoot, and wearing black harem-like trousers — costume codes a return to “native” manners, and his movements parody the primitive animalism so desired by the white imaginary. Turning murder into ritual sacrifice, Kani’s Othello performs the “other”: at once a substitute for the stereotype and its shadow, he simultaneously evokes and deflects the narratives of black males’ violence against women that accede to the colonizer’s wildest dreams. (48)

In this parody of the fear of a black savage stereotype, Kani’s Othello symbolically castrates Iago as his final act before committing suicide, an act which, according to Hodgon, functions as “not only reversing power relations between black and white bodies but literally enacting an even deeper political and social fear of white disempowerment” (49). This action not only fully realizes the white male’s fear of a black male’s imagined sexual prowess, but also functions as a symbolic attack on the dominance of white men in South Africa. Othello’s attack suggests that the real destructive force in the play has not been the jealousy, aggression, or sexuality of a black male, but instead the paranoid sexuality of a white man — the villain is not short and humble John Kani, but the large and dominant Richard Haines. Othello, thus, strikes at the very source and in doing so upends that very myth of black savagery

Suzman’s production forced the audience to contemplate the very political situation which bore it and which made a centuries-old work controversial. Suzman wielded “Othello” as a blunderbuss against not only the political realities of Apartheid, but the social underpinnings of the race relations which fostered that system. In parodying the fears of black male sexuality held by many white South Africans — particularly through the casting of John Kani, Suzman’s “real thing” — this production effectively trivialized such views while simultaneously maintaining a fervent attack against them.

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