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Brielle Douglin, held by John Jarvis, who plays Shakespeare in Shakespeare’s Nigga.

Adam Rankin Photography

1.5 out of 4 stars

Title
Shakespeare's Nigga
Written by
Joseph Jomo Pierre
Genre
Play
Directed by
Philip Akin
Actors
Sascha Cole, David Collins, John Jarvis, Joseph Pierre and Andre Sills
Company
Obsidian Theatre in association with Theatre Passe Muraille and 3D Atomic
Venue
Theatre Passe Muraille
City
Toronto
Runs Until
Saturday, February 23, 2013

William Shakespeare is cast as an urbane, cognac-sipping slave owner. Othello is his proud black protegé. And Aaron, the defiantly evil Moor of Titus Andronicus, is a rebellious slave straining against his bonds. There are times during the new play Shakespeare's Nigga when you feel like you're watching some comical mashup of the Stratford Festival and Django Unchained. It may be the silliest thing we've seen onstage lately. Unfortunately, I don't think "silly" is what playwright Joseph Jomo Pierre was going for.

Pierre's muddled but fitfully entertaining drama, getting its premiere production from Obsidian Theatre in association with Theatre Passe Muraille and 3D Atomic, unshackles two of Shakespeare's black characters from their respective plays. The intent is to re-imagine them from a black perspective and, particularly in the case of Aaron, offer context and explanation – if not justification – for their actions. An excellent idea in theory.

It's also deliciously provocative to think of Shakespeare, the Western canon's pre-eminent Dead White Male, as a European master who favours one man (the war hero Othello, who got his own self-titled tragedy) and punishes the other (uppity Aaron, who in Titus ends up buried "breast-deep in earth"). The trouble is that once Pierre unchains these powerful characters, he doesn't know quite what to do with them.

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His pitiful Aaron (played by Pierre himself) bears scant resemblance to the boldly unrepentant villain in Titus. There isn't even an attempt to connect him to the world of that play. Instead, he's simply used as a mouthpiece for the suffering of all African slaves.

Still, he fares better than Othello (Andre Sills), who is actually a blander figure here than he is in Shakespeare. He has none of the original's authority and charisma, just that little problem with insane jealousy. Serving literally as his master's whipping boy, when Sills's Othello isn't laying the lash on Aaron, he is trying – in an overworked metaphor – to break a stubborn steed.

Pierre's writing is a stew of sub-Shakespearean pastiche, spiced with occasional authentic morsels from Othello, Titus and other works, including Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice and the Sonnets. The plot, when it finally gets going, is no more than a lurid, laughable melodrama involving a love triangle between Aaron, Othello and Shakespeare's headstrong daughter Judith (Sascha Cole), which ends in would-be shocking revelations and obligatory acts of violence.

What are we to make of it all? The play suggests in its first scene that the whole thing is being dreamed by an aging and conscience-stricken Shakespeare (John Jarvis) after he nods off in his library. Certainly, Philip Akin's stylized staging and the show's surreal design emphasize a dream state. Trevor Schwellnus's set is dominated by towering bookcases, and Melanie McNeill dresses Cole's Judith in odd transparent-plastic costumes, including an Equus-like headpiece when she doubles as Othello's horse.

None of the actors is at his or her best, except for a lively David Collins. He plays Tyrus, Shakespeare's "house negro" – a witty role not dissimilar to Samuel L. Jackson's in Django Unchained. And like Jackson, Collins just about steals every scene that he's in.

At times in the play there are faint echoes of Edward Bond's Bingo, which also imagined a troubled Shakespeare at the end of his life. And there is the inevitable comparison with that most brilliant appropriation of Shakespearean characters, Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead – a revival of which opens shortly at Soulpepper.

Stoppard's existential comedy, as well as being clever, also enriches our appreciation of Hamlet. Pierre's work, apart from offering an intriguing racial interpretation of the Dark Lady in the Sonnets, adds nothing to our view of Othello and Titus Andronicus. But given that the latter is one of Shakespeare's worst plays, perhaps Shakespeare's Nigga is its appropriate complement.

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Shakespeare's Nigga runs until Feb. 23 at Theatre Passe Muraille.

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