City Garage Theatre reworks Shakespeare to explore racial self-identification

By Christina Campodonico

Othello is isolated by racial prejudice and Desdemona is confined by gender expectations in City Garage’s “Othello/Desdemona” Photos by Paul M. Rubenstein

Othello is isolated by racial prejudice and Desdemona is confined by gender expectations in City Garage’s “Othello/Desdemona”
Photos by Paul M. Rubenstein

In “Othello/Desdemona,” City Garage Theatre playwright Charles A. Duncombe doesn’t just go off of Shakespeare’s “Othello” script; he flips it.

In the original new play based on Shakespeare’s tragic story of a Moorish military man who rises to the apex of Venetian society only to fall into devastating jealousy, the protagonist Othello experiments with racial identity, his wife Desdemona craves freedom, his frenemy Iago is a punk rocker, and Desdemona’s bestie Emilia is transgender.

“Shakespeare never loses its relevance,” says Duncombe. “But it’s fun and interesting and illuminating, I think, to take stories that we’re very familiar with and examine them in terms of our contemporary politics.”

Among those modern issues that the premise of the play brings to mind is the one of racial self-identification, a controversial idea brought into public discourse last year when it came to light that Rachel Dolezal, a former NAACP chapter president who identified as black, was actually white by birth.

Duncombe was intrigued by the idea of racial self-identification and saw it as a point of departure for “the reverse,” he says — “a black man just theatrically deciding, ‘I’m just going to be white.’”

In the play, Othello (played by actor R.J. Jones) goes into whiteface, covering his visage in a light powder as he wrestles with his identity and role in society. The theatrical gesture is a pointed reversal of blackface, says Duncombe, that allows Othello to experiment with his racial identity but ultimately does not change how society treats him.

“[Othello] believes that people will finally just see him for who he is, rather than how he looks. Of course it backfires,” says Duncombe.

Like Othello, the playwright applies his radical theatrical experimentation to the tragedy’s other key characters.

“In Shakespeare’s original, Desdemona is the classic stereotype of the male embodiment of the perfect wife. She’s completely faithful; she’s innocent; she wants nothing except to support her husband’s story,” explains Duncombe. “We have this Desdemona who is literally trapped in this huge, cage-like bed and she can’t stand it. … She sort of badgers and henpecks on Othello in her own frustration.  She can’t escape her role, but she’s as trapped in her own role as [Othello’s] trapped in his.”

Villain Iago is also reimagined, but as an Oz-like talking head who sports a punkish leather jacket, is projected onto a video screen, and speaks into a headset mic like a motivational speaker.

“The Iago in our play almost exists solely in Othello’s head. He is the voice inside him that provokes him to question his own identity,” says Duncombe.

Just like Iago does in Shakespeare’s play, he eggs Othello onto his own destruction, “but he does it with a different type of seduction,” hints Duncombe.

Meanwhile, Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s friend Emilia — who traditionally delivers Desdemona’s handkerchief, a love token from Othello, to his lieutenant Cassio, making it look like the two are having an affair and inciting Othello’s lethal wrath — bends gender norms.

“In our version, she’s a he who dresses as a woman,” explains Duncombe.

Whether Emilia’s delivery of a deadly handkerchief precipitates Desdemona’s demise remains to be seen. But in “Othello/Desdemona,” perhaps the only thing to expect is the unexpected.

“Othello/Desdemona” continues at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 3 p.m. Sundays through May 29 at City Garage Theatre, Bergamot Station Arts Center T-1, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica. Tickets are $20 to $25, with a two-for-one special on May 21. Call (310) 453-9939 or visit