• By: Keith Whittier

Shakespeare in Gettysburg? Theatre Kraken Places Othello in the Civil War

Don Fex loves a challenge. I mean, last year he helped transform The Gladstone into a Little Shop of Horrors complete with writhing plants stems seemingly attacking patrons where they sat. In the theatre, however, nothing may be more daunting then trying to put a fresh slant on the Bard.

Still, you have to give credit to those who try, especially the truly odd attempts. What, you haven’t heard of Klingon Hamlet? What about A Midsummer Night’s Dream as performed by The Beatles? Surly the marvel that was Macbeth as played by inch-high plastic ninjas and other assorted toys rings a bell? Is this a katana  which I see before me, anyone? Anyone?!

Fex and his Kraken Theatre crew weren’t look to toil and trouble with the Shakespearean absurd when mounting their current production of Othello debuting Thursday evening at the Gladstone. They were, however, looking to find a unique angle in which to showcase the seminal tale of betrayal, racism and revenge. The company turns to the American Civil War as their setting but Fex explains that it was modern day headlines that would inspire this production at the outset. 

“There was a lot in the news about black men getting killed by police and the disproportionately high numbers of black men in the U.S. prison system,” Fex tells Ottawa Life about the real life events that would factor into the production choice.  “Someone observed that, really, the States just shifted to another form of slavery and control over the black population. It was that conversation that was the deciding factor to set it in the Civil War, sort of a representation of how history keeps repeating itself, from Shakespeare’s time, to the Civil War, to present day.”

The play revolves around the title character, former slave now Moorish general, leading a predominately white army. While it was a rarity in contemporary theatre to see a character of African descent as the lead, it was greatly controversial when this character took a white bride. The plays racial overtones are still talked about today. While it is believed that Shakespeare penned Othello in 1603, 258 years before Confederate troops attacked South Carolina’s Fort Sumter to begin a conflict over slavery between Northern and Southern States, Fex, a history-buff, sees parallels.

“At the end of the day, the play is about many things, but the theme of the outsider not being accepted because he is different was the central one for us. We have a former slave from the South who has enlisted in the Union army and has clawed his way up the ranks. There is precedent for this, as a few black men did indeed make it to officer status during the Civil War. Their backstories and Othello’s are strikingly similar,” says Fex.

Though the group has let the words do the heavy lifting –it is Shakespeare, after all—they have a few things in place to ensure the authenticity of their unique setting. Fex says they’ve taken great lengths, for example, to find Civil War uniforms, not an easy task here in Canada. They have also chosen a fitting soundtrack using original music composed in the style of traditional spirituals and protest songs.

While researching and rehearsing, from the quill of Shakespeare to the musket barrel of a Confederate soldier, it was clear for Fex and his team that there is still much to be done by way of racial equality.

“We are still at a point where a person of colour is only allowed to advance in our society as long as it is convenient. Once that convenience has worn off, our societal systemic racism kicks in and does what it can to limit what they can achieve,” says Fex. “

“It has been 155 years since Lincoln presented the emancipation proclamation, and not much has changed. We only need to look at the rise of the Alt Right and Charlottesville to see that.”

Theatre Kraken’s Othello begins February 1st and runs until the 10th. Tickets are on sale now.