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Second Stage explores race, patriarchy with Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’

scene from Stetson's Othello

Desdemona (Grace Aguda) and her new husband Othello (Peter Nyong’o) share a moment of intimacy in “Othello.” The Shakespeare play will be presented by Stetson’s Second Stage Theatre April 20-23 at the theatre in the Museum of Art – DeLand. Photos by Ken McCoy.

Peter “Junior” Nyong’o, a senior Theatre Arts major from Nairobi, Kenya, had been “kind of averse to Shakespeare my entire acting career.”

His disdain of the Bard changed when he landed the title role in Stetson’s Second Stage Theatre production of “Othello,” which runs Thursday, April 20, through Sunday, April 23, in the theatre at the Museum of Art – DeLand.

“It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever done, and it’s also rekindled my love for the craft completely,” said Nyong’o, the lilting accent of his native land buoying his speech. “I feel like as a performer during my four years at Stetson – it’s no one’s fault, but I feel I’ve been really caged in my scope. This has really allowed me to open up.”

Shakespeare’s tragedy tells the story of Othello, a dark-skinned Moor and army general, his new wife, the light-skinned Desdemona of Venice, and Iago, one of the soldiers under Othello’s command. Driven by his extreme but concealed hatred of Othello, Iago plots the Moor’s demise by planting suspicions that Desdemona has been unfaithful. And so jealousy and rage begin to grow in Othello.

Othello (Peter Nyong’o) begins to suspect his wife has been unfaithful as Iago (Alejandro Guevarez) continues to fan his suspicions in “Othello.”

“This is more profound than many of Shakespeare’s other plays,” said director Julie Schmitt, associate professor and director of Theatre Arts. “ ‘Romeo and Juliet’ feels rather youthful and impulsive. Ophelia and Hamlet’s relationship is somewhat strained from the beginning.

“But there’s something about Desdemona and Othello. Their courtship and this tremendous loyalty and bond they have with one another that gets preyed upon by an outside force, Iago – I think people can relate to that.”

“This kind of raw passion is in this play,” Nyong’o said. “You have these two characters who have this almost transcendent attraction beyond the physical – they are so emotionally and intellectually tied. They feel they’re on the fringes of society in their own respective ways, and they’ve managed to form this union that seems unbreakable.”

Grace Aguda, who portrays Desdemona, said Shakespeare’s play touches on numerous issues and emotions, but the Second Stage production will “especially amplify two themes: violence within a relationship, and race.” The play is part of the senior projects of both Aguda and Nyong’o.

“My research has been focused on the masculine rhetoric of the show,” said Aguda, who’s pursuing a double major in Theatre Arts as well as Communication and Media Studies. “I believe the masculine communication and influence surrounding Desdemona are what lead to her demise and is where this cruelty derives from.”

For Nyong’o, “doing this play in 21st-century America, you have just in daily life black bodies constantly stifled, having to walk and carry themselves in a certain way to not appear threatening or to not appear too rash, because any sort of movement can get a bullet in the head, right? And you have this character Othello who is so unabashedly passionate and emphatic. It’s important to see he is never apologetic about his passion and his joy, his anger. All of these emotions, he shows them. That’s something that’s so rare.”

Alejandro Guevarez, who portrays the devious Iago, said “the beauty of Shakespearean plays is they relate to human emotions. That’s why they have been transcending time for so long.”

A 37-year-old Puerto Rico native who earned a BFA in Acting from the University of Central Florida, Guevarez relates to Othello and Desdemona “because I myself am married to a white Caucasian woman,” he said, his accent enriched by his roots in the island. “So, I have seen part of that, what they are going through.” (Stetson opens its play auditions to non-students, Schmitt noted.)

More than 400 years after Shakespeare penned the play, “Othello” is “a hard reminder that we’re not past race,” Nyong’o said.

“I think for audience members, it’s their responsibility to inform themselves of what they’re going to see with this play,” said Aguda who, in stark contrast to Nyong’o, confessed that Shakespeare has “been ingrained in who I am” ever since she began doing theater in middle school.

“This play is not just ‘Oh, let’s go to the theater,’ ” she added, adopting a faux blithe tone. “This is an experience and you have to be involved. In the years I’ve been here, we’ve never had anything so encompassing and intense as this show.”

Indeed, along with a traditional Renaissance setting, Second Stage will present “Othello” in a “thrust”-style physical space, meaning audience members will be seated within a few feet of the performers on either side of the stage.

Though Nyong’o did not mention it during the interview, acting runs in his family: His sister Lupita Nyong’o won the Oscar in 2014 for Best Supporting Actress for her role in “12 Years a Slave.” He also became an Internet sensation when he attended that year’s Academy Awards as a guest of his sister: When Ellen DeGeneres organized a selfie with Meryl Streep, Brad Pitt, Bradley Cooper, Julia Roberts, Kevin Spacey, Lupita and other celebs, Junior joined in and his smiling face went viral along with those Hollywood stars.

-Rick de Yampert

If You Go

Stetson Theatre Arts’ Second Stage Theatre will present “Othello” at 8 p.m. Thursday, April 20, through Saturday, April 22, and at 3 p.m. Sunday, April 23. Performances will be in the theatre at the Museum of Art – DeLand, 600 N. Woodland Blvd., DeLand.

Admission is $12 adults, $10 senior citizens and students, and free for Stetson students, faculty and staff with valid ID. Tickets will be available at the door and reserved tickets must be picked up 30 minutes prior to the start of the show. Box office opens one hour prior to curtain. For information or reservations, call 386-822-8700.