By Laura Henry Buda
A few weeks before rehearsals for Othello began, director Ron Daniels and his lead actor, Faran Tahir, were in opposite hemispheres. Daniels had spent more than eight months in Brazil, his home country, directing an epic series of productions: Hamlet, Measure for Measure, and The Testament of Mary. A veteran director of classical theatre with an experimental bent, Daniels’ résumé includes serving as Artistic Director of The Other Place at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and the Associate Artistic Director of the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.). He has directed theatre and opera all over the world and has worked with superlative actors, including Derek Jacobi in The Tempest and Mark Rylance in Hamlet at the RSC.
Faran Tahir has been splitting his time between San Diego and Austin for the past year, filming for ABC’s critically-acclaimed show American Crime. After growing up in Pakistan in a well-known theatre family, Tahir moved to Los Angeles when he was 17. He has become one of the most prominent Muslim actors in Hollywood, playing a myriad of roles and appearing on shows from 24 to How to Get Away with Murder. Though Tahir has significant credits on the stage, he has worked most consistently in television and film, starring alongside Robert Downey, Jr., Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, and Jodi Foster in movies including Elysium, Charlie Wilson’s War, Iron Man, and Star Trek.
How did a Brazilian-born director of experimental theatre and a Pakistani-American screen actor cross paths? In 1992, while Daniels was serving as Associate Artistic Director of A.R.T., he directed a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, starring Tahir as Theseus/Oberon. At the time, Tahir was completing the graduate program at the Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard University, housed at A.R.T. “I think the brilliance of that show was that we had just 16 chairs,” says Tahir. “That’s it. The rest was left for the actors, story, and text to offer what they really had. And I think that’s the bravest of choices. The simplest of choices are always the bravest of choices to make.”
And why now, after more than 20 years, have they come together for this Othello? The idea for this production has long fascinated Daniels: rather than an African-American actor, to cast an actor from the Islamic world—closer to the definition of “Moor” as Shakespeare would have understood it. In Elizabethan London, “Moor” referred to the Muslim inhabitants of North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula. During the eighth century, the Moors invaded modern-day Spain and Portugal and eventually brought most of the area under Muslim rule. Though over the following centuries Christian armies attempted to drive adherents of Islam back out of Spain, in England “Moor” continued to be applied to any person of dark skin or Muslim faith, whether they had converted to Christianity or not.
As an ambassador for Muslim actors on stage and screen, Tahir is sensitive to one-dimensional portrayals of Muslims and Arabs in the media. He has spoken many times about the need for more fully developed Muslim characters and fewer stereotypes. Even when tackling the role of arch-villain Raza in Iron Man, Tahir succeeded in persuading screenwriters to shift the focus of Raza’s evil away from formulaic religious radicalism. Created nearly 400 years ago, Othello is in many ways a more multifaceted Muslim character than the majority of roles written today. The conflict between his Muslim past and Christian present and his status as a revered general who is still decidedly an outsider are complexities that represent essential elements of his identity. “If Othello is a Moor,” says Tahir, “the prism through which all of this information and emotion is going to refract has something to do with his faith. It affects how he interprets things and how he deals with life.”
Tahir and Daniels agree that Othello’s identity as a Moor is also key to the journey of Iago. Racism fires Iago’s hatred, driving the action and leading to destruction. “[Iago’s] is a very complex personality,” says Daniels. “It’s profoundly racist, profoundly bitter, profoundly class-conscious, and disaffected. He’s as much of an outsider as Othello.”
Tahir feels the same. “Iago never says, ‘I hate Othello’—he says ‘I hate the Moor’—and I think there’s a distinction to be made there. It’s not just about this man, it’s about racism. It’s about everything that this man represents.”
But just as Othello’s faith is only one element of his identity, Iago’s racism is only part of his perspective. It’s clear that Daniels and Tahir share a passion for exploring characters that live outside the binary of saint and sinner. Is the infamous villain Iago also more complicated than pure evil? Daniels thinks so.
“To say that he is satanic—that to me is not quite right. He is a human being who is resentful—resentful for all the opportunities that he doesn’t have. And in a strange way, his resentfulness, his bitterness, creates the monster that Othello becomes.”
Tahir questions the idea that any human can be objectively wicked. “Nobody gets up in the morning—not even Hitler or Osama bin Laden—and says, ‘Today I’m going to be really evil.’ I think they think that they are absolutely justified in doing what they do. But the world sees it as evil. The complexity is the beauty of it. Making him just a devil—that’s not interesting.”