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Philip Akin in the Stratford Festival’s 2007 production of Othello - the company's first to star a black Canadian in the title role. (David Hou)
Philip Akin in the Stratford Festival’s 2007 production of Othello - the company's first to star a black Canadian in the title role. (David Hou)

Edmonton Othello production crossed line from subversive to regressive Add to ...

At first, it sounded like a scenario too ludicrous for even a Christopher Guest mockumentary.

Walterdale Theatre, an amateur theatre company in Edmonton, was planning to open a production of Othello with a white performer in the title role this week – right smack in the middle of Black History Month.

Can you believe it? Artistic director Anne Marie Szucs apparently thought this was an inspired idea since the performer in question was also a woman and her production was to be set in “a postapocalyptic world where traditional power structures were inverted.”

Many local artists and audience members understandably felt instead that giving the only title role in Shakespeare’s canon that traditionally goes to an actor of colour to a Caucasian was beyond the pale. Critical comments on Walterdale’s Facebook page over the past month ranged from the almost apologetic (“I’m sorry, but as much as I want to support my local artists/talent, I can’t support this cultural revision”) to the politely insistent (“PLEASE STOP THIS”).

Last Monday, however, the debate surrounding Ms. Szuc’s unusual unmooring of the Moor of Venice shifted drastically when Walterdale sent out a news release, cancelling the show and blaming it on “both online and in-person threats” received by members of the production.

“[W]e can’t continue with a production where the safety of our cast has been threatened,” Walterdale board president Adam Kuss said in the release – which also stated that the matter had been referred to the police.

It was at this point that a local conversation over the wisdom of an amateur production’s vision transformed into a national and even international one about the principle of artistic freedom.

Small Walterdale even made headlines as far as the venerable American theatre organ Playbill: “Canadian troupe cancels Othello after alleged threats over casting.”

Although it is a just a community theatre in Edmonton, Walterdale’s story no doubt caught on because it plays into a larger narrative being propagated primarily by conservatives in North America right now – that there is a scary movement called “political correctness” gaining steam and it is at war with a core value called “freedom of speech.” This is a big bugaboo of President Donald Trump, of course, and particularly his so-called alt-right supporters.

The only problem: Like so many of these stories, the one in Walterdale is not really that simple when you take a closer look at it.

First of all, Linette J. Smith, the actress who was set to play Othello, dropped out of the play on the Friday before Walterdale sent out its news release – and of her own volition.

In a Facebook post, Ms. Smith – a performing-arts teacher at a local high school – explained she had “chosen” to leave the community production after listening to, well, her community. “I made a mistake, I am so sorry and I own it 100 per cent,” she wrote. “I am grateful for the conversation that has happened with me around the choice of attempting the role and I encourage those talking about me to engage in conversation.”

In other words, it was free speech that convinced Ms. Smith to step down – and left this production without a lead only a week and a half from opening.

But what of the alleged threats? An Edmonton Police Service spokesperson told me this week that the police only learned of possible threats the day after the Walterdale release went out saying they had been referred to them – when a reporter called to look into what was then a non-existent investigation.

It was after that point that Ms. Smith sat down with her school resource officer and went over the social media and e-mails she had received – including one menacing message from a stranger that made her feel vulnerable. In the end, the teacher decided not to press charges – and the police, who can decide to do so on their own if they feel “the threat is of a life-threatening nature and could potentially impact a broader group,” decided not to either.

As for any in-person or other online threats to other artists – everything is plural in the Walterdale news release – the Edmonton police haven’t heard of any. I tried to get in touch with Mr. Kuss and Ms. Szucs for clarification by phone, e-mail and social media this week, but I didn’t hear back from either of them.

Listen, I love it when directors and actors make bold choices with Shakespeare, or play against him – and a lot of innovation begins in university or amateur theatres. But there’s a difference between subversive takes and regressive ones.

It’s certainly true that the dramatic supremacy of William Shakespeare and his male-heavy plays in this country has not been wonderful for female actors historically – but do you know when the first black Canadian played the title role in Othello at the Stratford Festival? It was only 10 years ago.

Even in 1979, Stratford still had a white man darken his face for the role – and blackface continued on even later in other parts of English Canada. It still pops up in Quebec today.

It’s not censorship when artists listen to criticism and decide that a production is a bad idea. Randy Brososky, a Walterdale actor who was initially excited to play Iago (and who tells me he did not receive any threats), wrote on Facebook that he had come to the realization that: “This was one instance where ‘the show mustn’t go on.’”

Perhaps Mr. Kuss and Ms. Szucs might have considered simply saying that in their release.

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