With xenophobic extremism roiling through our country, Cal Shakes’ 2016 production of Othello intentionally explored the presence of Islamophobia in the play. But how could we ensure that a 400-year old work could speak to the lived experiences of Muslim Americans in the present? How could we confront our own assumptions and biases in telling a story about someone “othered” in a culturally-specific way that most of the creative team was not?
Cal Shakes partnered with the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California to better center community members directly impacted by the themes we sought to explore. The Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California (ICCNC) provides space for the cultivation of ideas about Islam through art, culture, and education programs. This collaboration taught us more about how theater and community-based organizations can learn from each other, lift up each other’s work, and create social impact on the issues that matter most to our communities.
Othello Story Circle
At the start of Othello‘s rehearsal process, Cal Shakes invited artists and cultural workers impacted by Islamophobia to gather at the ICCNC and share their stories. In a circle led by Assistant Director Denmo Ibrahim (featured earlier that season in Cal Shakes’ Much Ado About Nothing), participants discussed the personal impacts of Islamophobia, popular depictions of Muslim Americans, and more. In the second half of the circle, participants were invited to give Cal Shakes feedback on concepts for the production through an exchange with actor Aldo Billingslea (playing Othello) and Director and Cal Shakes Artist Director Eric Ting.
Through our ICCNC partnership, community voices shaped what happened on our stage and revealed what’s at stake in the story we were telling. Key quotes from the story circle were featured in an art installation that audience members passed on the way into the theater. Story circle participants were invited to see the play and share feedback through previews and after opening.
“Othered in America” Civic Dialogue
After Othello finished its run at the Bruns, and before it toured the Bay, Cal Shakes continued the conversations started in the story circle and stoked by polarized audience reactions to the play with a civic dialogue hosted at the ICCNC. “Othered in America: A Conversation on Islamophobia in the U.S.” explored popular representations of Muslims, the impact of xenophobia on public discourse, and the role of arts practitioners in a time of heightened Islamophobia.
“Othered in America” was produced in partnership with IC3: Incubating Creativity, Community, and Culture, an artist-run series of project incubations for emerging Muslim American artists and cultural producers that result in public events for diverse, multicultural Bay Area audiences. Seventy-three people gathered at the ICCNC for the event, which featured participants from the story circle as well as guests engaging with Cal Shakes for the first time.
The night kicked off with a panel facilitated by Sabiha Basrai, co-coordinator of the Alliance of South Asians Taking Action, in conversation with Sana Saeed, a producer at AJ+, and Abdulrahim Harara, an actor and activist. It continued with an open mic of performances curated by the Muslim Writers Collective , a grassroots initiative dedicated to promoting storytelling in the Muslim American community, the Bay Area chapter of which runs a monthly open mic at the ICCNC.
Cal Shakes’ Civic Dialogue Series seeks to explore the intersections between theater and civic practice. Check out recaps of our other 2016 Civic Dialogues:
- The Impact of Toxic Masculinity in Society
- Breaking the Binary: Building a Trans*/Gender Non-Conforming/Non-Binary Inclusive Theatre, presented with Berkeley Rep
- The Construction of Gender: Actualizing Women’s Empowerment, presented with Impact Hub
Othello at the ICCNC
Cal Shakes brought our partnership full circle by bringing Othello, shaped by our work with the ICCNC, to the ICCNC.
One hundred and twenty-five audience members came to the free, public performance, circling the actors in chairs and pews. Cal Shakes’ Othello typically featured a ten-minute talkback right before the end, at one of the play’s most climactic moments. At the ICCNC, this conversation extended to 16 minutes, as community voices eagerly shared about what they were seeing:
“I read the play 20 years ago and I didn’t understand Iago. I am sitting here watching now and seeing, it’s not just jealousy — it’s white supremacy. The racism. It’s these really basic themes that prevent us from seeing the larger issues.”
“There was so much anger around his position and Othello’s position — all of that came from a high level of anger and racism. He’s living in the white supremacist world and it just tears him apart.”
“His insecurities were exploited.”
“I didn’t see it as prejudice; I saw it as power hungry. Iago was so Trump-like to me.”
“I hated that Iago used the system to do all of that. The fact that it wasn’t a tragedy that Desdemona dies, but it became a tragedy when we see that she was wronged — that makes me so angry.”
“What struck me the most is the matter-a-fact nature of the racism. It’s only [mentioned] a few times by the racist characters themselves and then it’s just an everyday thing that’s going on. And Othello doesn’t acknowledge it. The dichotomy within him: here he is a general and at the same time he is helpless in love and has no control.”
“What strikes me is the actuality of this year: 1000 years ago, black men were lynched for just looking at a white woman.”
“I see the cross section of white supremacy and hatred. I saw the self destructive nature of white supremacy.”
Staging Othello at the ICCNC, in downtown Oakland, made the work more accessible to more of our East Bay community and revealed resonances that didn’t readily surface elsewhere; as our house manager noted, the term “white supremacy” hadn’t come up very often during previous talkbacks. Our actors remarked on how special it felt to perform in such a sacred space that held so much beauty.
Cal Shakes deeply thanks Raeshma Razni and the ICCNC for saying “yes” to collaborating deeply. We are grateful for the opportunity to listen, learn from, and uplift the voices of community members facing systemic marginalization in our society.