Queen’s Vagabond’s artistic choice left students of colour in the dark and it’s a decision that can’t be ignored.
Student theatre company Queen’s Vagabond released a statement last week announcing the suspension of their production of Shakespeare’s Othello. The decision follows a torrent of backlash directed at the production team’s choice to cast a white woman as the canonically black, male protagonist.
It’s a terrible shame that members of the cast felt threatened and unsafe as a result of the production. What the production stirred up though, can’t just be ignored.
While it may be easy to label the controversial casting as just a gusty artistic choice, the “artistic” preface seems to grant free reign and dismiss the consequences of actions that hurt students of colour.
The choice was made with the intention to stir the pot — the artistic directors’ Facebook post responding to the backlash read that they “were aware of the social implications” and “anticipated backlash” but were “very disappointed in the way this community has approached the situation.”
It’s not fair to intentionally stir the pot without understanding the consequences, both for the cast and other students. When their crew’s safety was at risk, taking action was the right thing to do, but to label the criticism as unreasonable seems dismissive of the legitimate outrage over the casting decision.
More conversation from the directors before the decision may have lessened the aggressive response, nevertheless it may not have made the decision a good one.
To apply the play’s themes to issues of gender instead of race, Othello’s blackness didn’t have to be erased just to cast a woman.
The role could have been an opportunity for a Black female actor, but acting as if the play could only focus on one or the other erased those students.
It’s tough to escape the racial implications of a play that focuses on race, particularly at a university with a diversity problem.
The conscious decision to replace the play’s racial overtones with a white actor doesn’t seem like just an isolated artistic choice. The artistic team’s choice may be representative of a bigger cultural issue in the Drama department and Queen’s.
Even with good intentions of portraying different themes in the play — it reflects a culture that has a long way to go to produce diverse art and accommodate diverse perspectives.
It’s this larger implication that may have caused the anger-fuelled backlash.
Although criticism should never threaten someone’s safety and wellbeing, anger is valid when the incident is a reflection of a much bigger issue.
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