Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Moor Than You'll Ever Know

Those of us living in San Francisco are frequently reminded that we live in a tiny bubble of liberalism. While the Bay area's expansive theatre community has done a lot to address issues of diversity in casting, community outreach, and the programming of works written by women and minorities, it's easy to forget that discrimination occurs all the time.

It's so convenient to imagine that discrimination happens somewhere else. With the "#OscarsSoWhite" hashtag highlighting the difference in the racial diversity on display at 2016's Academy Awards (as opposed to this year's Tony Awards and Emmy Awards), some people may have convinced themselves that problems with racism and misogyny exist primarily within the decision-making circles of the film and television industries in New York and Los Angeles.

As more and more innocent black men are gunned down by police (while white supremacists and political conservatives insist that the Black Lives Matter movement is a genuine threat to the purity of their vision of 'Murica), one occasionally has the opportunity to experience a rare theatrical production which attempts to approach issues of diversity from a human, rather than a political perspective. The advantage of attending such performances is that, when a piece of theatre holds a mirror up to an audience so that people can see the perverse, age-old tactics still being used to dehumanize and delegitimize the "others" in a community, the message hits home.

Acting while Black isn't always a barrel of laughs. The one saving grace is that the fake blood used is a stage prop. The bullets are blanks.The deaths being enacted onstage are fictional. We should all be so lucky.

* * * * * * * * *
The first time I experienced Rotimi Agbabiaka in performance was in the tiny Exit Stage Left venue during the 2010 San Francisco Fringe Festival. A native of Lagos, Nigeria, he impressed me as a wildly gifted artist with the muscular fluidity of a trained dancer, the nuance of a veteran actor, and a genuine, warm-hearted personality that audiences couldn't wait to embrace,

After pursuing an undergraduate degree at the University of Texas at Austin and finishing grad school at Northern Illinois University at DeKalb, Agbabiaka studied with the Moscow Art Theatre, Bulgaria's Leon Katz Rhodopi International Theatre Laboratory, and performed with Shakespeare at Winedale in Texas. Soon after arriving in San Francisco, he began rehearsals with the San Francisco Mime Troupe and became a member of the League of Burnt Children (a queer performance and literary collective that used to meet at Mama Calizo's Voice Factory).

Rotimi Agbabiaka stars in Type/Caste (Photo by: Shot in the City)

In his previous one-man show, Homeless, Agbabiaka described how, in the eyes of others, he is often only seen as the manifestation of a race-driven sexual fantasy. However, to those who have seen him perform in a wide variety of plays on multiple Bay area stages, there is no doubt that, in addition to having a lithe and muscular body, this man also possesses a fierce intellect and hungry heart that yearn to be engaged. He is a true "theatre animal."

Earlier this year, Agbabiaka appeared in two productions at the Magic Theatre that were part of Mfoniso Udofia's impassioned nine-play cycle about the fictional Nigerian Ufot family. One was the West Coast premiere of Sojourners; the other was the world premiere of runboyrun. As the frightened boy who would eventually travel to America, he delivered a stunning performance of white-hot intensity that was nothing less than heartbreaking.

Each time I've seen Agbabiaka perform, I have been bowled over by his versatility, his fierce dramatic commitment, the complexity of his craft, and the white-hot fire he brings to any theatrical venture. This is a man who gives 150% of what he's got to an audience. It is breathtaking to watch him take a stage and own it.

Rotimi Agbabiaka stars in Type/Caste(Photo by: Shot in the City)

Directed by Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe, Agbabiaka is currently performing his newest one-man show, Type/Caste, at the Bravo Theater Center. During his monologue, he challenges the limited vision of theatrical producers who can't see past the color of his skin to cast him in their shows (yet often express a desire for him to portray someone whose skin color is "darker" or "lighter" than his own). When asked how he would market himself as a bankable talent, Rotimi demonstrates that being a multi-talented professional who can sing, dance, and speak with a wide variety of accents really doesn't matter when the only way he is perceived is as a "Blacktor." The fact that he is perfectly at ease in drag and not the least bit shy about being openly gay further limits his opportunities during auditions.

Rotimi Agbabiaka stars in Type/Caste(Photo by: Shot in the City)

Whether reliving the childhood thrill of trying on his mother's wedding gown or dressing down to nothing more than a tailored sport jacket, shiny high heels, and a bulging studded leather jockstrap, Agbabiaka proves once again to be a remarkable performer whose abundance of talent is bound to confuse casting agents and producers who suffer from limited artistic vision. Among the challenges he faces is the need to move past his early definitions of artistic success in order to bypass the narrow minds of people who are ill-equipped to appreciate his gifts. When confronted with the realities of how blatant capitalism impacts the arts (in both the for-profit and nonprofit arenas), the ultimate solution is to make one's own rules and proudly live by them. His performance in Type/Caste demands to be seen.

Rotimi Agbabiaka stars in Type/Caste(Photo by: Shot in the City)

Performances of Type/Caste continue through October 1 at the Brava Center (click here for tickets).

* * * * * * * * *
For the final production of its 2016 season, California Shakespeare Theater is presenting Shakespeare's multiracial tragedy, Othello, in a new production directed by Eric Ting and designed by Nina Ball with lighting by Russell Champa and sound design by Brendan Aanes. Updated to the present, the cast is led by veteran Bay area actors Aldo Billingslea as the tragic Moor and James Carpenter as Iago, the manipulative villain.

Emilia (Julie Eccles) and Desdemona (Liz Sklar) in a scene
from Act II of Othello (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

With minimal scenery (save for Desdemona's bed and the use of projections and live feeds from digital cameras), this production of Othello is mostly framed by chain-link fencing and some cloth surfaces onto which images can be projected. The actors introduce themselves to the audience and explain which roles they will be playing (the audience is also warned that a gun will be used later in the play). The cast then moves to their positions in a circle of chairs so that, when they are performing, they can stand and move around; when seated and silent, they are essentially offstage.

Occasionally, an actor will move downstage and tap a microphone to indicate that they are stepping out of character to offer some background material to the audience. These moments include Aldo Billingslea discussing the influence of a fellow actor who died of AIDS. In Act II, another actor steps forward and interrupts the action in order to explain the physiology of what actually happens to a body when someone is being strangled to death. At one point, Billingslea angrily stares into a camera as Othello's rage begins to boil so that the projected image the audience sees resembles the angry eyes of a wild beast.

Aldo Billingslea (Othello) stares into a digital camera which
projects his image behind the stage (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

Performed in modern dress (the male characters all wear hoodies), Alexae Visel's costumes serve two purposes: They help to keep the actors warm during outdoor performances on colder nights during September and October. They also allow the actors a much greater sense of physical freedom and agility (which would be impossible to achieve in period costumes). Thus, it becomes quite refreshing to see the young, infatuated Desdemona (Liz Sklar) leap into Othello's arms or stand on tiptoe in order for the two lovers to see eye-to-eye during a conversation.

Desdemona (Liz Sklar) and her husband (Aldo Billingslea) are
very much in love in Act I of Othello (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

The audience's reaction to any contemporary production of Shakespeare's 412-year-old tragedy is bound to be influenced by the political climate in which it is staged. With the 2016 Presidential campaign inflaming racial tensions and ramping up the misogyny that infects the alt-right movement (and the insidious ways in which social media can amplify gossip and lies), it doesn't take long for audiences to realize that Othello has lost none of its relevance in today's world, where hatredfear, xenophobia, and willful ignorance can easily overwhelm reason and love.
  • There is no doubt that Desdemona's father, Brabantio, is repulsed by the fact that his rebellious daughter has fallen in love with and married a Moor, whose skin color and race disgust him.
  • Nor is there any doubt that part of Iago's hatred for Othello is based on the fact that he sees the Moor encroaching on the white/Caucasian power structure of Venetian society (much like Donald Trump accuses Mexicans of taking jobs that should have gone to "real Americans").
Iago (James Carpenter) plots the Moor's downfall in a scene
from Shakespeare's Othello (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

In her program note, Torange Yeghiazarian (the founding artistic director of Golden Thread Productions) stresses that the cost of “otherness” lies at the core of Othello’s tragedy.
“Othello is an immigrant, a refugee, a slave who has the same capacity for humanity and happiness as everyone else. To be accepted into Venetian society, he has adopted the social norms of that society and worked hard to prove his worth, and his worthiness. By all measures (at least according to the value system of Shakespeare’s time), Othello should be the happiest of souls. He acknowledges his age and ‘the vices of my blood’ but, at the same time, recognizes his accomplishments that have earned him honor and a good name. He confesses himself worthy of Desdemona’s love and, in the presence of Desdemona we find Othello gentle and kind. In the presence of the Duke, Othello embodies the essence of valor. When speaking with Cassio, Othello is a true friend. Yet, with the slightest provocation, Othello is driven to distrust Desdemona and question her loyalty. ”
Desdemona (Liz Sklar) has fallen in love with Othello (Aldo
Billingslea) in Shakespeare's tragedy (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)
“From the early moments in the play, we hear Othello described as an ‘old black ram' and ‘a barbary horse.’ This is in stark contrast to Othello’s perception of himself. In a way, most of us have experience of ‘being different‘ because, after all, we are not identical people. But for those who are displaced and must conform to new social norms and values, ‘otherness’ takes on greater dimensions. Having played and won by the rules, Othello believes himself to have been accepted, indeed honored and decorated. Othello performs his identity slightly differently depending on who is in the room. In Iago’s eyes, Othello is nothing but an animal. And Iago does not rest until he creates an environment in which Othello can behave only as an animal. In the presence of Iago, Othello turns into an insecure and doubtful man. Othello’s internalization of Iago’s perception of Othello’s true nature is at the core of the tragedy. Perhaps, at that moment, Othello realizes that no matter his long history of valor, honor, and true friendship, in everyone else’s eyes he will always be a Barbary Horse.”
Iago (James Carpenter) skillfully manipulates Othello (Aldo
Billingslea) in Shakespeare's tragedy (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

In many productions of Othello, the actor portraying the Moor may be the only black person onstage. In this new staging by Eric Ting, Lance Gardner has been cast as Michael Cassio, which makes blazing good sense considering their history as the closest of friends. Not only does it put Desdemona's adamant pleas for her husband to forgive Cassio in an entirely different light, it also adds an extra layer of racism to Iago's betrayal of Cassio.

In supporting roles, Michael Storm appeared as Desdemona's father, Brabantio, as well as two other Venetians (Montano and Lodovico). Elizabeth Carter doubled as the Duke of Venice and Cassio's lover, Bianca. Matthew Baldiga portrayed the easily manipulated Roderigo, who had pined for Desdemona's love but ends up being killed by Iago (for whom Roderigo's death is little more than collateral damage).

Othello (Aldo Billingslea) kisses his sleeping wife (Liz Sklar) before
strangling her in Shakespeare's tragedy (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

Without doubt, the biggest surprise of the evening was Ting's decision to stop the action following Emilia's death at the moment Aldo Billingslea raised a gun to his head as if to commit suicide. The house lights were brought up for ten minutes of audience participation during which theatregoers were encouraged to describe their reactions to what they had witnessed and ask questions of the cast.

Aldo Billingslea, James Carpenter, and Liz Sklar in a scene from
Eric Ting's new staging of Othello (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

While Ting was probably aiming to get the audience involved on a more personal level by discussing their reactions to the racism, misogyny, duplicity, and relevance of Shakespeare's play, I was stunned by something else that happened.

In both the theatrical and operatic versions of Othello (see Verdi's Otello), the final scene accelerates past Desdemona's untimely death to Othello's suicide. As he bleeds to death, he uses his last bit of strength to pull himself up onto Desdemona's bed for one last kiss. Instead, Ting has Othello blow his brains out (with fake blood being spattered on the drapes surrounding Desdemona's bed).

On one hand, I really resented depriving the audience of Shakespeare's ending, which puts a more poignant spin on Othello's death. However, Ting's staging accomplished something much more important to me. By interrupting the action after Julie Eccles had pretty much torn up the stage with Emilia's accusations against her husband and Othello, Ting left the audience shocked by the righteous indignation of Desdemona's loyal servant, who is usually left to die in a darkened corner of the stage.

Eccles brought genuine fire to the moment, which showcased how knowledgeable women are routinely ignored and trivialized in societies dominated by alpha males. As much as I admired the work of Aldo Billingslea, Liz Sklar, and James Carpenter, I thought Eccles stole the show.

Emilia (Julie Eccles) berates her husband Iago (James Carpenter) for
evil he has done in a scene from Othello (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

Performances of Othello continue through October 9 at the Bruns Amphitheatre in Orinda (click here for tickets).

No comments: