WASHINGTON — Washington---As recently as Paul Robeson's day, it was considered daring to cast a black actor in the title role of Shakespeare's "Othello." That practice is virtually the norm today. But at the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger, director Harold Scott has added another twist -- he has also cast a black actor as Iago, the trusted ensign who incites the Moor's fatal jealousy.
It is an inspired choice, and not merely because of Andre Braugher's carefully calculated performance as Iago. One problem with this great tragedy is that it's difficult to understand why Iago succeeds so rapidly in convincing Othello -- a military general who is presumably a good judge of character -- that his young Venetian bride, Desdemona, has been unfaithful.
But when Othello's closest aide is also his fellow countryman, the dynamic between them is suddenly easier to understand. After all, Othello has married outside his race in a country whose customs differ from those of his homeland. To him, Desdemona is probably every bit as exotic as he is to her. If he and Iago share a common background, there can be an underlying bond between them.
When we first see Avery Brooks' prepossessing Othello with Mr. Braugher's Iago, they walk with their arms across each other's backs; they look so natural together, they could be brothers.
And oh, how this Iago takes advantage of their shared background. In many ways, Iago is the flip side of Othello. Othello trusts everyone; Iago trusts no one. Othello is driven by love, Iago by hate. And by making Iago black, Mr. Scott adds another element as well. This Iago envies his countryman's position; if he cannot be in charge officially, he will control events behind the scenes. Mr. Braugher suggests all of this in his understated performance, filling in the motivation behind this villainous character.
In fact, there isn't a bad performance in the entire production, although Mr. Brooks' Othello is unexceptional. While he is unquestionably competent, Mr. Brooks becomes histrionic too soon. Jealousy grips him with the force of the epileptic seizures from which Othello suffers. Near the end, when his rage takes on a pulsatingly quiet intensity, he is truly frightening.
Jordan Baker gives a refreshingly strong interpretation of Desdemona, a woman who, though frequently portrayed as a pushover, must have had considerable fortitude to go against her father and marry the Moor. In this production, Emilia, Desdemona's loyal companion and Iago's wife, is also black, and Francelle Stewart Dorn portrays her as a well-meaning woman who moves felicitously between both worlds. As Othello's maligned Lt. Cassio, boyish Graham Winton is well cast as an officer whose foolhardy youth is almost his undoing.
Director Scott ends this able production with an image that morbidly mimics the silent prologue he has added to Shakespeare's text. Thefirst thing we see is Othello and his bride making love on their wedding night; the last thing we see is their dead bodies draped in a fatal embrace. Though the first image may seem overly graphic to tender sensibilities, it renders the final one all the more chilling.
"Othello" continues at the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger through Jan. 27; call (202) 546-4000.