By Artistic Director Eric Ting
Since taking over as Artistic Director of Cal Shakes, I’ve been traveling a lot. My wife and new baby are still in Brooklyn, so, racking up lots of miles. But this is strangely about a different trip, one to Houston for my cousin’s wedding this past December, my cousin who I hadn’t seen in several years, my cousin who (I realized about 10 minutes into the service) was “born again” (a level of devotion not really found in my family #understatement). This is to say that, heading home the next day, I was already of a mind to be surprised by people.
The flight home was nothing special. I like to sit towards the back of the plane, and I like to get there early so there’s room for my bag in the overhead. I settled in, leaning against the window, half-shutting my eyes, waiting for sleep. Eventually a woman with blonde (almost white?) hair settled beside me, and a young man hugging a backpack and listening to music took the aisle. A quick text to my wife: “I LOVE YOU!” The plane taxied, took off, sleep found me.
I awoke from my nap, an hour still to go before landing. There’s that moment when you first open your eyes, when your mind is trying to reconcile your surroundings before sleep with their current state. And something caught my eye.
Now I consider myself a decent man, an honest man. But since my daughter’s birth, I’ve been taken by a new anxiety; and in this moment, my head leaning against the hull of the plane, a woman with blonde almost white hair and a red blouse sleeping next to me, next to her was… a black backpack in an empty seat. A flicker, but nothing to think twice about. But 15 minutes later, and still, an empty seat; 45 minutes later, and we were preparing for landing and still no one; and I found myself seized with this inexplicable fear. I found myself glancing up and down the aisle looking for even a glimpse of this man in a black hooded sweatshirt and can headphones, a man with olive skin who sat there on the aisle as we were taking off but was nowhere to be found and it was all I could do not to reach over and grab that bag and yank it ope—
A month earlier, men with guns and suicide vests had walked through the streets of Paris killing 130 people.
I think of myself as an honest man, decent, fair. And yet, there I was, overcome by paranoia, shutting my eyes and thinking of my daughter. I think I held my breath until we reached the gate.
I chose OTHELLO for my Cal Shakes debut, in part because of the climate of racial injustice across our country–what better play to explore the ravages of white envy in a politically correct era, capturing the subtle and not so subtle extremism that surfaced with and has lingered after Obama’s election? Iago, career soldier, working class, a good and decent man who has opportunity “stolen” from him by a Black man; but who re-commits himself to this general, this friend, only to once more be passed up for a younger man, perhaps even another Black man.
But something else happened after arriving home from Houston: the political rhetoric shifted. And in this post-ISIS climate, the quintessential outsiders revealed themselves. Othello the Black Man became once more Othello the Moor, the Muslim, the stranger in a strange land, who is surrounded by fearful glares and who has compromised himself to participate in this community, and who can never fully trust anything–even love.
Fear is a powerful motivator. It steals our will, but it also bestows permission to do things, to think things, we would never otherwise consider. It feeds on our flaws, it teases them into the open, it lays them naked before us. My OTHELLO will be a consideration of this, of the daily compromises we make to co-exist in a place with others who are not like us, of the manner in which those compromises might eat at our insides, revealing themselves as fear, as rage, as hope, as desire, as paranoia, as faith. This tragedy does not reside in just one man, one marriage, but rather in all of us, even the most honest of us.