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GIUSEPPE VERDI’S Otello opens the Metropolitan Opera’s 2015-2016 season with a break in tradition. Hitherto, its Moor of Venice has appeared in black makeup, but not this time. Tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko is bronzed-up a tad, but nothing resembling the blackface of yore.
This got me thinking about Shakespeare’s play Othello, on which Verdi’s opera with its Italianate spelling are based. Were there blacks in Elizabethan England? When did a black actor first play the role? These thoughts, in turn, reminded me of Orson Welles’s Voodoo Macbeth, an innovative production with “making-down,” and his own later movie portrayal of the Moor.
Shakespeare’s audiences would have been familiar with “blackamoores.” Records of St. Boltolph’s parish show they lived, worked and intermarried in 16th-century London. John Blanke, for instance, was a court trumpeter during the reigns of Kings Henry VII and VIII.
Richard Burbage was the Elizabethans’ George Clooney. He was likely the first Othello in its 1604 debut, though his makeup for this role is not known.
More than 200 years later, Ira Aldridge became the first black actor to perform Othello, at London’s Royalty Theatre in 1826. The performance met with controversy in London, but was better received on tour in continental Europe. One Russian theater critic wrote that his times watching Aldridge’s Shakespearean roles “were undoubtedly the best that I have ever spent in the theatre.”
In 1936, Orson Welles, age 20, was given the assignment of directing the Negro Theatre Unit in Harlem, part of the U.S. Federal Theatre Project. An innovative production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, recast in 19th-century Haiti rather than Scotland, has come to be known as the Voodoo Macbeth.
The title role was portrayed by Jack Carter, a black actor whose light skin called for blackening-up. Lady Macbeth’s Edna Thomas was also light-skinned and she too required what the all-black cast called making-down (not making-up), the practice of darkening a complexion. On tour when the lead actor fell ill, Welles once stood in as Macbeth. He did so making-down to traditional blackface, better to fit in with the rest of the cast.
In 1952, Welles portrayed the Moor in his epic movie Othello. Akin to the Metropolitan Opera’s current Otello, his makeup choice was not traditional blackface. Concerning the film’s 2014 revival, Richard Brody wrote in The New Yorker that Welles played the role “with a mild bronzing that leaves Othello’s Moorishness less a vision than a notion.”
This film, by the way, is a compelling story of its own. What with problems of funding, locale and his life’s upheavals, Welles took three years to complete Othello. As noted by Brody, “Welles unfolds the strange story of the shoot, which entailed an actor, say, entering a doorway filmed in Morocco in 1949 and emerging in the same scene from a doorway filmed in Italy in 1951.”
Now there’s a story worthy of more research. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015