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Chukwudi Iwuji Is an Othello for the Modern Age

May 29, 2018 by Niree Noel
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Chukwudi Iwuji (Photographed by Jenny Anderson)

The Obie and Olivier Award-winning actor Chukwudi Iwuji will take the stage at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, May 29-June 24 in the title role in Shakespeare’s classic drama “Othello.” This is the Nigerian-born Iwuji’s fifth production with the Public Theater, that stages the beloved Free Shakespeare in the Park series each summer. Traces of disbelief and awe linger in his voice, however, as he recounts his journey from boarding school in London to studying economics at Yale and theater at the University of Wisconsin. But for an actor of such talent and caliber as Iwuji, it’s no surprise that he began his career with the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company, working his way up from the wings to eventually landing lead roles, before moving to New York and working with the Public.

We caught up with Iwuji before “Othello’s” opening night to chat about his relationship with the famous Moor, his pre-show prep rituals, and why he’s never seen another Othello on stage.

This is your first time playing Othello, professionally. But it’s not your first time playing Othello. What was your earliest experience depicting the lovelorn Moor?
I was at Yale undergrad, and it was my last show. The director asked what I’d like to do and I don’t know why, but I said “Othello.” There’s a part of my psyche that blocks it out because I was probably bloody awful! Who plays such a role at twenty years old? But I think there are parts of it that remained in me. When I was learning lines for this production, it was still there.

You’ve played quite a few Shakespearean characters, from Hamlet to Henry VI and more. What drew you to portray Othello at this time?
The Royal Shakespeare Company has a real culture of apprenticeship. I spent fifteen months watching the senior actors play the big roles. There developed a graduation in my learning experience with Shakespeare as I worked through Aufidius, Henry VI, and Hamlet. I was playing Lear with Anthony Hopkins when, after our first conversation, he said “you must be ready for Othello.” A few weeks later, the Public offered me Othello. There’s a side to this industry where if it’s your time do something, everything aligns.

How do you prepare for a role like Othello?
I walk around the city sitting in coffee shops mumbling to myself because the words contain the power. Shakespeare literally directs you through the words he chooses to put in your mouth; he was not only the greatest writer of all time but also the greatest director. He had a deep understanding of the human psyche, and when I come into the room I’m ready to be an open vessel. A lot of modern language is what’s in between the lines, but with Shakespeare, the language is where the work begins.

Let’s talk about love and language. Othello loves Desdemona, but then he kills her. Can you share how the words clue you in to Othello’s interiority?
One of the most famous speeches Shakespeare ever wrote is in Act 5, Scene 2. “It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul…” It’s also one of the most monosyllabic speeches. When you speak the words out loud, you must speak slowly, otherwise they get sort of gobbled up. They have this almost metronomic rhythm, and you realize that Othello has put himself into a slightly removed state at the end.

My favorite line right now is when he is reunited with Desdemona after having faced tempests and gales and a whole Turkish fleet at sea. “If it ‘twere now to die, / ‘Twere now to be most happy, for I fear / My soul hath her content so absolute / That another comfort like to this / Succeeds in unknown fate.” You hear a line like that and say I wish my lover would say that to me!”

“Othello” deals with so many themes that resonate so strongly today: racism, love, betrayal. How have current events shaped your understanding of “Othello”?
None of Shakespeare’s stories were original; they were all stolen or borrowed. What he was able to do was infuse the characters with incredible humanity, and that doesn’t change. It remains relevant. “Othello” has always been the outsider. We didn’t have to change the story for it to have impact. We can still do the play as written and people will understand the interference that occurs when race is mixed in with power and economics. Something about a black face in a rich culture has always stood up, still stands out, especially in America. There is that awareness that makes this play resonate here more than anywhere else.

Have you seen other Othellos on stage?
Never! I’ve seen a few film adaptations, but I’m really happy about going into this doing my own thing – with the guidance of the text and director, of course.

This is your fourth time onstage with the Public Theater. What’s the best part of doing Shakespeare in the Park?
The park is singularly the most welcoming stage I can think of. The amount of love that exists from those 1,700 people long before you’ve said one word is overwhelming. I don’t know why they did it, but I feel blessed to have the Public invest in me as an artist.

For the production itself, there’s this whole X factor that exists with nature. It goes from light when you begin to darkness by the end. You can’t manufacture or explain that until you experience it. It’s going to be really quite extraordinary.

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