Jennings says goodbye to directing at AU with 'Othello'
Caleen Jennings directs “Othello,” a personally meaningful show
For her last time directing a play at American University, Caleen Jennings picked one of her favorite plays and playwrights: William Shakespeare.
Her sold-out depiction of Shakespeare’s “Othello” ran from Feb. 28 to March 3in Katzen. Jennings also offered a showing for high schoolers.
Set in Venice, “Othello” follows the downfall of a black soldier who has fallen in love and married Desdemona, a white noblewoman. He faces racism, envy and jealousy from the people of Venice, other soldiers and Desdemona’s family. The main antagonist, Iago, brings Othello to his ultimate downfall and reveals the power of jealousy.
The stage was set up with alley-style seating to make the audience feel more connected to the play’s action. The characters often spoke to the audience, questioning them and involving them in the chaos.
“I wanted to bring the audience right into the action and give them a sense of their complicity in this story,” Jennings said. “Nobody gets to stand back. Everybody’s in it.”
The inclusion of a chorus amplified this interaction between audience members and actors. “Othello” traditionally does not have a chorus. However, after experimenting, Jennings decided to implement one that physically surrounded the audience and drew them further into the world of the play. They repeated treacherous words with a vicious tone to stun and induce chills in audience members.
“Nobody comes out of this with clean hands,” Jennings said. “You have to acknowledge that being a human means that there’s stuff that’s wonderful and stuff that’s really awful about the things that you do.”
The walls of the theatre were covered in images and paintings of black men from Kyle Hackett’s collection. Hackett’s collection highlights the black male experience, which is lived by Othello in the play.
His paintings inspired Jennings to take a new look at “Othello,” she said. She assigned collages of black men both famous and familiar to her actors to get them thinking about the black male experience and become connected with the play’s focus before their performance. After creating their collages, the actors spent time speaking about the black men they draw inspiration from.
“It definitely helped us to bond a lot because we learned a lot about each other and our experiences that we had with black men,” freshman Daniella Ignacio said.
Jennings also incorporated many different types of lighting to convey emotion during “Othello.” For example, there was a green ambience in the lighting, which represented the envy and jealousy that contaminates the characters of “Othello.” There were even points where lights shone on the faces of the black men in her actors’ collages, illuminating their faces and bringing them into the world of the play.
Jennings took many chances with this play as she had some actors transcend race and gender roles. The role of Brabantio is traditionally a father, but Jennings chose to change this character to a mother figure.
The same went for Iago’s character. To show his two-faced nature, Jennings created a dichotomous Iago. He was played by two actors: a man and a woman. These jumps in gender changed some of the play’s insinuations, but they did not alter its central message.
“It was very interesting for me to look at what happened when gender changed,” Jennings said. “Was the racism softened? Was the aggression softened?”
Much of the play’s essence was born out of accidents that came from Jennings’s openness to outside inspiration. For example, she saw Josh Kerobo, a student, one day and asked him about his saxophone. From that conversation, she invited him to be the main source of music in the play. The saxophone was a fitting sound for “Othello,” as jazz is deeply embedded in the history of black culture.
Jennings has been wrestling with the cruelty and racism within “Othello” since she was a high school student watching the play for the first time at the University of Nigeria. The play is often interpreted in many ways. It is seen as a play about the abuse of women or a play about politics Jennings said, but to her the focus of the play is the individual at the center of it.
“I’ve been living with this play for a long, long time,” Jennings said. “For me, it’s a play about race and it’s a play about the black male at the heart of the play.”
Jennings said that “Othello” was a strong play to end her directing career. The show will continue to live with her and she hopes that everyone takes in its message and learns from it.
“I think it’s very important to remember the important and amazing work that Caleen has done,” Ignacio said. “It’s bittersweet that this is my first and last show with her.”
As co-chair for the President’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion, Jennings said that a show like “Othello” is important for an AU audience. In her director’s note in the program for “Othello,” Jennings wrote about the play’s connection to the racism we see today.
“This play and the walls of this theatre reflect my journey with this play,” Jennings said. “I continue to work on active ways to heal our campus after its own series of painful racial incidents.”
Editor’s note: Daniella Ignacio is currently the music editor for The Eagle.