photo: michael brosilow
Since its debut last summer at the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, Othello: The Remix has been trotting around the world (to Germany, then Scotland). In mid-March, it finally arrived back at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, where the show was developed.
The hip-hop remake of Othello (the one about the Moor who does a world of hurt to the people he loves thanks to the scheming of his underling Iago) is the third time the talented Q Brothers—Gregory and Jeffrey Qaiyum, also known as GQ and JQ—have done a commercially produced “add-rap-tation” (their term) of a work by the dopest MC of the Elizabethan Age. The Bomb-itty of Errors came first in 1998; Funk It Up About Nothin’ followed, to great acclaim again, in 2008.
At the fun party after the press opening, Criss Henderson, the theatre’s executive director, mused about whether this show would find its audience here. The biggest challenge, he said, was that people who love Shakespeare won’t want to see a hip-hop version of anything the bard wrote, and the crowd who follows hip-hop won’t be interested in having it applied to Shakespeare. (I thought the big problem attracting the non-gray-hairs to the show would be Navy Pier’s remote location and its annoyingly expensive parking lot.)
But then, glowing reviews rolled in—the Chicago Tribune’s Chris Jones called it their “best yet” and the Sun-Times’s Hedy Weiss proclaimed it “brilliant.” A hit was born! On Wednesday, CST announced that the show would extend seven weeks through June 15.
Henderson’s not wrong to be circumspect—hip-hop Shakespeare, let’s face it, does occupy the tiny sliver between two overlapping circles in a Venn diagram that itself is a speck in the entertainment universe. It also sounds like something extremely nerdy high-schoolers would do. His wondering about whether Othello: The Remix would make the jump from ultraniche theatre to traction with a wider audience may owe to the fact that Q Brothers’ 2008 show, also produced by CST, got great reviews but didn’t sell out or extend.
So what went right this time? Henderson, who gamely chatted with me over the phone on Wednesday, the day CST announced its extension, has some theories:
1) It’s a great show, and quality sells.
This is true: The show is worth seeing simply to witness the enormity of the creative undertaking here. The Q Brothers do not lamely put Shakespearean language to a beat. They use the original play as a structural foundation, then write all new words and compose DJ-assisted tracks to animate them.
It helps immensely that they—with two other talented actor-rappers, Postell Pringle and Jackson Doran—act and dance well, are hilarious, and somehow pull off this show without looking foolish or making the audience feel like parents at a rave.
Henderson notes that the show does a nice job on the dramaturgical front, too. “Taking on a tragedy was good idea—it helps the show to have to deal with seriousness,” he says. “You can delve into depth of character, as opposed to the surface tension of the comedies. There’s also a social relevance—Othello is still a pretty timely play.”
2) It’s cheap.
The lowest price ticket, $20, is available (online at chicagoshakes.com) to anyone under 35. No gimmicks, except that you may buy only two tickets per production. Actually, this offer is good for any show at the CST.
3) Word of mouth really works.
According to Henderson, people who have never seen a show at CST account for more than half of the Othello tickets sold so far. His sense from eyeballing these audiences is that the show is attracting “hipsters” (he himself cringed at the term even though he used it) who have come for a bona fide cultural event as opposed to an obligatory-feeling night at the theatre.
He chalks this up, somewhat, to CST’s shrewd move of first presenting the show overseas as a festival piece—short engagements to foreign theatre lovers, who, I’m guessing, must have eaten up the audacious American-ness of the whole thing. That early buzz translated into three solid weeks of pre-show coverage from the local media when Othello returned to its artistic home.
“It takes about five to six weeks. That’s when word of mouth really starts to work for you,” Henderson says. “Chicago is a word-of-mouth town.”
Through June 15 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave., chicagoshakes.com, 312-595-5600. $20 to $35