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Q&A: Joseph Jomo Pierre on hip-hop and Shakespeare

‘I think Othello speaks to us that feel like we’re on the sidelines,’ says Pierre.

TIM FRASER/The Globe and Mail

Joseph Jomo Pierre is known for his plays that reflect urban black experience such as Born Ready and Pusha-Man. For his latest work, Shakespeare's Nigga, now onstage at Theatre Passe Muraille, however, the Trinidad and Tobago-born, Scarborough-raised playwright has turned to William Shakespeare and two of his most famous "Moors": Othello, and Aaron from Titus Andronicus.

Theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck spoke with Pierre in Toronto.

What made you want to write a play about Othello?

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Well, my play started off being about Aaron, but I realized I couldn't discuss Aaron without discussing Othello. Othello is the image most people have when it comes to a black Shakespearean character. As a black person, going through the arts, Othello is the role that you want to play. That is the end game, as an actor.

What is it about Aaron – "chief architect and plotter of these woes" in Titus – that intrigued you?

The thing about Aaron is that he does a lot of horrendous things because he's in one of the most horrendous and bloodiest of the tragedies. I had the opportunity to play the role and the direction I got just seemed shallow – that I should play the character as evil. Being a person of colour, I felt like there was so much more within that violence.

You describe Othello as the "end game" – but today, with colour-blind casting common for Shakespeare, why isn't it Hamlet or Richard III?

Over all, you want to play all the other great characters, but the draw is being able to identity with the character, being able to embody yourself onstage. During theatre school, I never actually played black characters. I was not able to delve into certain areas that other actors were.

Your writing is inspired by hip-hop. There have been a lot of rap adaptations of Shakespeare in recent years – what's the connection between these two poetic worlds?

I'm not writing rap verses or anything, but it's in the creation. For me, one of the major elements of hip-hop is the role of the DJ. The DJ is able to take a beat and sample it and loop it, take a verse and put it in somewhere else and juxtapose it with something else … That's what I do with this. There are lines from Shakespeare that I lift and I place somewhere else. I've woven them together to tell my story. I didn't want to have people up there rapping, you know, "Oh, Shakespeare's cool."

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You're not the first Canadian playwright to riff on Othello – Ann-Marie Macdonald's Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) and Djanet Sears's Harlem Duet are two prominent examples. What's behind the impulse to talk back to this play?

For myself, it's that, beneath it all, I am a person of colour in this art world. I'm faced with these challenges being the only black person in the class – and nobody's going to pick projects just suited to you. In some ways, you feel like you are Shakespeare's nigga. I think Othello speaks to us who feel like we're on the sidelines. We're the spear carriers and we don't want to be the spear carriers.

Shakespeare's Nigga, produced by Obsidian Theatre in association with Theatre Passe Muraille and 3D Atomic, runs at TPM until Feb. 23.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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