Bringing OTHELLO to the Hood: Interview with director Ozzie Jones, part 1

Theatre in the X is an artists collective, founded by LaNeshe Miller-White, Carlo Campbell, and Walter DeShields, to provide African American theater artists in Philadelphia with acting and directing opportunities and offer free and accessible theater to an underserved community. All performances take place in Malcolm X Park at 52nd and Pine streets. Theatre in the X launched in 2013 with Amiri Baraka’s A Black Mass, and presented Nilaja Sun’s No Child in 2014. OTHELLO is this year’s major offering.

In the first of a two-part interview (read part two here), Phindie writer Henrik Eger speaks to director Ozzie Jones about Theatre in the X and presenting Shakespeare in an area some call “the hood”. [Malcolm X Park, 52nd and Pine streets] August 8-22, 2015; theatreinthex.com.

The audience for OTHELLO at Malcolm X Park. Photo by Tieshka Smith

The audience for OTHELLO at Malcolm X Park. Photo by Tieshka Smith

Shakespeare for black audiences

Eger: This summer, Philadelphia lucked out with many Shakespeare productions in various parks. What sets Theatre in the X apart from other companies that produce Shakespeare?

Jones: Our production is being done in a black neighborhood. Racist news outlets would say that such a production would be impossible. But like most such assertions and ideologies, they are exposed in the face of reality. And the reality is: The community is coming out in great numbers and loving it.

Eger: What did you do to bring OTHELLO to predominantly black audience in Malcolm X Park?

Jones: We set Othello loosely in the world of a crime syndicate in contemporary America—mainly, because in such a world, violence is an expected reality for how men rise and fall from power. Also, the underworld has the patriarchal, macho dealings with women, with the mental and physical violence, ending in murder—all realities which the play needs for its awful, tragic end.

Eger: How did you do to make the Elizabethan language accessible to non-traditional audiences?

Jones: I’m trying to make my work more and more like a cave painting and get rid of all pretense. Nothing is hidden from the audience. That was important to me. I didn’t want to go into a poor community and change the words. I changed nothing. They heard the same Shakespeare they would hear if they were to go to the National Theatre in London.

The folks at Malcolm X Park understood that Othello loves Desdemona, that Iago doesn’t like Desdemona, that he would do anything to drive Othello into murder, and they understood that everybody gets heartbroken. If the audience understands that, then they understand the whole play—even if they don’t understand all the words.

Eger: What influenced your decision to stage a three-hour OTHELLO production without intermission?

Jones: I learned a lot in Europe, especially when I saw the acclaimed Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg perform Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed at the Barbican Centre in London—an eleven-hour production. They projected English translations onto a screen atop the stage. Although the whole production was in Russian, the story was so clear that after a while I stopped looking at the text and, instead, concentrated on the play and the story.

I did the same thing with OTHELLO. Just Shakespeare. And people understood. I heard nobody who complained.

Eger: That’s quite an achievement—three hours of Shakespeare in one go.

Jones: True, and nobody left. Nobody was fidgeting in their chair. I was proud of that. I have never seen Shakespeare performed without intermission, but we performed it in the park non-stop with kids everywhere. What was exciting to me is living, breathing evidence that Shakespeare is still relevant and can be understood.

Our production is proof that we as artists can and should be making more interesting, more creative, and more inventive work, because the people want it.

Eger: How does this production of OTHELLO go beyond the perceived limits of black theater in Philadelphia?

Jones: Many people in the theater community think that if an audience is poor, young, or uneducated, there has to be singing and dancing, and a production must not be longer than 90 minutes. That’s almost an unwritten rule. However, this show is evidence that this kind of thinking is absolutely false.

Many of our schools don’t even perform Shakespeare because they think that poor kids are incapable of understanding Shakespeare, but our production demonstrates that this notion is absolutely not true.

This production and the community’s response to it says: There is no limit to the kind of theater that the black community will go see and embrace. The idea that the people who live in poor black neighborhoods need to have theater with loud slapstick comedy, singing, dancing, eye popping, and booty shaking is a stone cold lie.

​Dwayne Thomas as Iago laughs at the carnage he has caused. Photo by Tieshka Smith.

​Dwayne Thomas as Iago laughs at the carnage he has caused. Photo by Tieshka Smith.

Theatre in the X

Eger: Malcolm X lived in North Philly in 1954 for three months, trying to expand the Nation of Islam Temple. I take it that Theatre in the X with its productions in Malcolm X Park pays homage to a revolutionary American.

Jones:  In cities with large black communities, especially with great poverty, parks are often named after Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, Jr. Malcolm X did spend time in Philadelphia at a mosque on South Street. That’s where he saw a lot of guys in the mosque who were not really following the faith but were criminals. He knew they were killers. And like Jesus who threw out the money changers from the temple, Malcolm X tried to throw the criminals out of the mosque. He got into an argument with the elder Elijah Muhammad over that issue, and eventually, the charismatic young firebrand got assassinated by members of the Nation of Islam.

Eger: What are the goals of Theatre in the X?

Jones: The intention of all involved with Theater in the X is to bring smart, challenging, interesting, and passionate theater to the people: Theater that does not insult the intellect, culture, or community. Theater that is for free. Theater that is for all. The goal for the future is to do that more and more often.

We are building a community. The whole idea is to reach a wide audience through theater, something that the community is actually looking forward to with many more productions in the future.

Eger: Theatre in the X is performing at 52nd and Pine, in an area that has been called a high crime section of Philadelphia.

Jones: I partially grew up around 52nd, and that neighborhood is filled with my family. If you are in any “hood,” you get what you are looking for. If any of the readers go up there looking for drugs, stolen property deals, etc., that’s what they will get.

However, if they go up there to live, eat, drink, chill, build with the community, and watch a play in the park, that’s what they will get—they will get nothing but love. My suggestion would be for everyone to turn off the television and get the el to 52nd Street, get a grub, watch the play, and relax.

Eger: So anybody is welcome to see your OTHELLO in Malcolm X Park.

Jones: Yes. What sets Theatre in the X apart is that Malcolm X Park is in one of the coolest, historically relevant sections of Philadelphia. 52nd street is the ultimate. It’s fantastic: Great theater in a fabulous place. Everybody should come.

Read part two of this interview.

 

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About the author

Henrik Eger

HENRIK EGER, editor of Drama Around the Globe. Bilingual playwright, author of Metronome Ticking. Born and raised in Germany. Ph.D. in English, University of Illinois, Chicago. German translator of Martin Luther King, Jr’s Nobel Peace Prize mail. Producer-director: Multilingual Shakespeare, London. Retired professor of English and Communication who taught in six countries on three continents, including four universities and one college in the U.S. Author of four college text books. Longtime Philadelphia theatre correspondent for AAJT, the world’s largest Jewish theatre website. Articles published in Classical Voice, Los Angeles; Kayhan International, Tehran, Iran; Indian Express, Mumbai, India; The Jewish Forward, New York; Philadelphia Jewish Voice, Phindie, and Broad Street Review, Philadelphia; The Mennonite, Tucson; and New Jersey Stage. Contact: HenrikEger@gmail.com