High school theater group puts undocumented immigrant twist in Shakespeare’s Othello

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It’s not unusual for high school theatre clubs to tackle the staging of Shakespeare’s tragic tale Othello. The play, which revolves around an African general and his Venetian wife, has enough conflict, suspense and action to make any performance of the classic interesting and exciting for both actors and audience.

Othello and Desdemona played by Misael Pando and Larisa Martinez with Carla Salazar (background) playing Emilia entertain audiences during Othello performance.(Photo: Santa Fe South High School

Not for the theater students at Santa Fe South High School in Oklahoma City.

Students at the charter school knew they wanted to stage Othello but they didn’t want to put on a production that none of the students at the predominantly Latino high school wouldn’t be able to relate to.

Students Evelyn Vazquez and Elizabeth Wright had an idea. Why not bring Othello not just into the 21st Century but have his story mirror what was happening in their own community.

Instead of Othello being an African general, he would be an undocumented immigrant and Desdemona, his wife, would be Mexican-American. It was an idea that immediately appealed to English teacher and theater arts faculty advisor, Chauncey Shillow, who as the play’s director, would have to juggle two different worlds in one play.

“Because I needed to maintain the integrity of the text, I tried to keep Shakespeare’s language intact,” Shillow said. “However, we needed to recreate the relationships between the characters in order to make the words make sense. Once we began to run the concept, though, these relationships basically created themselves.”

In addition to tweaking the two main characters, Shillow changed the relationship between Othello and Iaga. In the original, Iaga is Othello’s trusted ensign. In the new version, Iaga is Othello’s possessive sister.

Though the students’ new version clearly addressed the hot button issue of illegal immigration, no one saw it as serving a political agenda. Not the students, not the educators nor the local community. In fact, according to Shillow, the school administrators were very supportive.

“We are hired to be advocates for our students and families; thus, anything we can do to make their stories public is supported,” Shillow said. “Besides that, we do not deny our students the opportunity to advocate for themselves on any level, whether in the classroom, in relationships, or in their communities.”

Not worried that people would view his students as activists, Shillow and his students focused on creating believable characters and memorizing lines. Along the way, the local community showed just how much they supported the students and their project.

From a professional theatre organization helping the students learn stage mechanics to a recent acting graduate choreographing the play’s fight scenes to the local police department providing lunch for the students, the community got involved.

And the students got involved in the play.

Of the 19 students participating in the production, only two had ever read Othello. Yet by the time rehearsals were done and the cast started performing on stage before audiences, Shillow could see the experience transforming his students.

“I actually thought I sucked at acting in the beginning,” Larisa Martinez, a sophomore who played Desdemona, shared. “But once I learned how to get into character, I learned how to act better.”

Misael Pando, a first semester theatre student, who played Othello, enjoyed his experience so much that he’s declared he’s going to continue studying theatre.

Yet the biggest high for all of the students has been the audience’s reaction.

“I didn’t think the crowd would really like it and that it would bore them, but they weren’t,” Larisa said.

Commenting on her fellow students’ reaction to the play, Jessica Tracy, a junior who played Iaga, said, “They all liked it and have been very supportive. They said it was very good and now they’re talking about Shakespeare.”

While most of the students agreed that their version of Othello reinforced Shakespeare’s original intent of cautioning people to be careful who you trust and, according to Jackie Garcia, the play’s stage manager, “that anybody can backstab you to make themselves look better,” the play did give a couple of the students reason to reflect on the issue of immigration reform — and realize that part of the play is a story with an unfinished ending.

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