Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan (SOTS) presents Othello with a prairie twist.
The local theatre troop has returned for another season, and has partnered with the Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company (SNTC) to create a unique Cree business version of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy. The play is one of two, including a post Second World War version of Much Ado About Nothing.
“We knew we wanted to do Othello, which of course if we’re going to do Othello around here we wanted to do a Cree version,” director Will Brooks said.
The play, historically centered around a Moorish general in the Venetian army, follows Othello, a Cree businessman who has climbed the ranks of the corporate world, but faces racism, hatred and jealousy from some of his peers.
Tempers flare when Othello, played by the famous Cree stage and film actor Michael Lawrenchuk, marries the daughter of a Caucasian colleague and promotes a young man to a high-level position.
Lawrenchuk said the play has modern day ties to Canada’s Aboriginal population.
“It looks at a Cree man that is trying to survive in a world which was not created by him and a world where things were taken away from him and which suffers from and then he does this horrific thing,” he said.
Adapting the original text, Lawrenchuk has woven pieces of Canadian history, including residential schools, the mistreatment of First Nations peoples, and missing and murdered aboriginal women into the play.
“It’s a very poignant statement about where we are today in terms of male violence against women and how we think that’s okay. I say we think it’s okay because it happens,” Lawrenchuk said, adding theatre is a form of education. “Theatre tells a very human story about something that is very crucial to maintaining humanity.”
Several monologues also feature Cree lines.
The production has also given many local First Nations actors and stage workers the chance to break into the industry and sharpen their skills. Working with SNTC, the theatre company has brought on several mentees to help put the show together.
Aaron Shingoose became involved in the project early on. An actor for five years and a stage manager for two, Shingoose said he was eager to work as a design mentee to become more than a “one trick pony,” but he was also very interested in the Cree version of the play.
“When it comes to the tones of dealing with prejudice and stereotypes, Othello is definitely a great gateway drug for education people on that,” he said, adding it’s good to see aboriginal actors in a Shakespear play. “Now we need to take it a step further where we finally see an aboriginal person not having to be limited to an aboriginal person.”
Shingoose said while theatre alone is a difficult field to break into, it is often harder for aboriginal workers due to numerous financial, stereotype, and physical barriers. Youth who grow up in isolated communities have additional barriers due to distance and lack of resources, meaning they may turn away from theatre at a younger age.
Fourth-year University of Saskatchewan drama student Logan Martin Arcand said he was fortunate to be in the right places at the right time. He said going to university showed him there was more to theatre than acting and directing, such as set design, lighting, and management.
Arcand said the SOTS Othello has helped break down some barriers.
“(Aboriginal people) only get casts in roles when there needs to be an aboriginal person on stage, and there’s no reason why we can’t do other Shakespeare plays or plays from before the 1950s without colour barrier,” he said.
The play runs through August 23rd at at the stage behind the former Mendel Art Gallery. Tickets and show times can be found on the SOTS website.
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