"I have not deserved this." -Desdemona [IV.i.236, Othello]
In 2005, more than 1,100 women in the U.S. were killed by a partner, a third of the total number of women who were murdered, according to the federal Bureau of Justice. The department calls it "intimate homicide," a sort of contradiction in terms.
In Shakespeare's classic, Othello, the titular character murders his wife, Desdemona -- the tragic result of a woeful misunderstanding; his suspicion and jealousy are fatal flaws in an otherwise heroic character. Ultimately, this play is about Othello, not about Desdemona; but should it be? Or can Othello be examined simply as a tragic story about how violence happens between people who are supposed to love one another?
This examination is what led Jennifer McCray Rincon, director of Visionbox Actors Studio, to adapt the play, fitting it over the modern, minimalist backdrop for which Visionbox prides itself, and placing the focus on the actors, words, and story. It's what led her to create The Othello Project: Phase II, which opens this week at L2 Arts & Culture Center.
Rincon got the idea for the adaptation after being subpoenaed as a witness in a domestic violence trial; during the proceedings, she noticed clear parallels to Othello. Afterward, in the course of thinking and talking about it, people started to tell Rincon their own stories of being close to violence -- and Rincon started to write them down.
She wove these personal accounts -- traumas, nightmares and flashbacks -- through Shakespeare's story and put them into Shakespeare's words, writing several new scenes in the process. It became a shameful timeline, a chronicling not of how things have changed since Shakespeare's time, but of how they haven't.
Desdemona may be a fictional character, but what happened to her is very real, and it happens to women every day. In 2008, a woman named Toni Clark was stabbed to death by her boyfriend in the kitchen of their home on St. Paul Street. She is just one of many victims of intimate homicide, and the Toni Connection, an organization her family started in her memory, seeks to help victims of intimate violence escape their situations before they can be counted in Clark's number. In keeping with the theme of their Othello interpretation, Visionbox has dedicated the June 2 showing to the Toni Connection.
The Othello Project has had such a vocal response that it has been divided into phases, and the show opening tonight is Phase II. "Eventually, I'd like to do a documentary," Rincon hopes.
Visionbox is billed as a "studio" rather than a "theater," where professional actors in the city can study, train, and work on their technique. Rincon saw potential in the character-driven Othello, which, she says as someone who has produced the play and other works of Shakespeare, she "always thought...was about domestic violence."
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The Othello Project: Phase II will be complimented by an art show in the lobby, showcasing local artists who have created visual illustrations to add to the conversation. Each showing will be followed by a talkback by local victim advocacy groups. Involving the community in a subject like this--by fundraising, having talkbacks by guest speakers, bringing theatergoers into reality, encouraging discourse--is due diligence for a commentary on a social issue.
Rincon says she is "not trying to be a missionary for social advocacy," though, arguably, that ship has sailed. She just wanted to do right by the story. In doing so, though, she became a sort of speaker for Desdemona; the people still here to tell her their story; and all the ones, like Toni Clark, who will never have that chance.
The Othello Project runs through June 9; the art show will begin at 6 p.m., followed by the performance at 7 pm and a talkback with the Victim Services Network's Crime Victims Advisory Council at 9 pm. Tickets are being sold online only; they are $20 for general admission, $10 for students and seniors, $5 for actors with a headshot and resume, and $40 for the benefit performance and reception for the Toni Connection on June 2. For more information or to buy tickets, visit Visionbox.org.