Review: Shakespeare’s Nigga (Obsidian Theatre/Theatre Passe Muraille/3D Atomic)

Toronto’s Obsidian Theatre opens its new season with Joseph Jomo Pierre’s play Shakespeare’s Nigga

I distinctly remember a conversation I had with my friend Rudy a few months ago. When I invited him to the theatre to see a Shakespeare play and he said, “Oh, I’ve never liked Shakespeare” when I pressed him to elaborate he offered, “you know, even in high school when they forced us to learn it I always just thought he was just some old white dude whose writing couldn’t possibly have any relevance to my life or my experience.”

I guess I could relate to Rudy’s point of view to a certain extent; as people of colour our stories and experiences have never been reflected in the mainstream narrative of the Western world. We’re often invisible and when we are mentioned at all the story is often told through the Caucasian/Euro-centric lens. That’s why I’m so interested in pieces like Shakespeare’s Nigga that examine and challenge that dynamic.

Obsidian Theatre opens its season with an original script by playwright Joseph Jomo Pierre with a title that people are antsier to say aloud than that of Shakespeare’s “Scottish Play.”

I found the concept of Pierre’s script fascinating; an aging Shakespeare (John Jarvis) has a sort of delusional fantasy where he is confronted by his two Black characters; the Moorish Venetian general, Othello (Andre Sills) and the treacherous villain from Titus Andronicus, Aaron (Joseph Pierre).

In this alternate reality Othello is Shakespeare’s right hand man and Aaron is a sort of captured slave being punished for attempting to escape. The intrigue of the plot heightens as increasingly complex relationships are revealed between the three men and Shakespeare’s daughter Judith (Sascha Cole).

The show is essentially styled as a spoof of a Shakespeare play borrowing the Shakespearean language convention of stylized old English. Overall, it wasn’t quite the show I was expecting; it didn’t nearly come across as subversive in nature or irreverent in tone as the bold title lead me to believe. In the end, I didn’t connect with the show the way I hoped I would.

I had a long conversation with my show-going partner, site founder Megan Mooney, afterward and we agreed that we both had a hard time investing in the main characters. I wasn’t sure what to make of the way the characters of Othello and Aaron were constructed; they vaguely resembled the characters in their respective Shakespeare plays but I thought they were still rough sketches rather than compelling fully-fleshed out characters.

Interestingly, the character of Tyrus played by David Collins, the only completely original character in the play, ends up being the most relatable through the collection of bit parts he plays throughout. I’m not entirely sure if the character was intentionally constructed to be a realistic counterpoint to the surreal characters or if it was solely due to Collins’ expert delivery but I found my attention gravitating toward him in every scene he was featured.

There are certainly aspects of the show to recommend; the production design is superb and director Philip Akin paces the show well and builds the tension toward what ought to be the thrilling conclusion. Unfortunately, I just wasn’t invested enough in the script or characters for that moment of release at the end to have the impact I think it could have had.

Details:

  • Shakespeare’s Nigga is playing through February 23, 2013 at Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace, 16 Ryerson Avenue, Toronto.
  • Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday at 2:00 p.m.
  • Tickets $15 – $35.
  • Tickets are available online through the Arts Box Office, by phone at 416.504.7529, or in person at the venue 3 hours prior to performance. For more information visit passemuraille.on.ca

Photo of John Jarvis and Andre Sills by Keith Barker