‘Othello: The Remix’ gives Shakespeare the hip-hop treatment

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By Ivette Feliciano and Zachary Green

OTHELLO: “I never knew my pops, moms was a junky / raised in the streets with the beats that are funky. / Concrete and metal. A child of the ghetto. / Lookin’ for the loot, but there was none for Othello.”

IVETTE FELICIANO: In their production of “Othello: The Remix,” rap and theater artists, the Q Brothers, reimagine the classic William Shakespeare play for a modern, hip-hop audience. For real-life brothers GQ and JQ, hip-hop is more than a music style, it’s a way of life.

JQ: If I go to a workout class, I would rather it be in rhyme. I want everything in life to rhyme. Ordering a sandwich, everything, I want to be in rhyme. You know what I mean?

IVETTE FELICIANO: The only Shakespeare play featuring a black protagonist, “Othello” tells the story of a military general who becomes convinced by his resentful underling, Iago, that his wife is cheating on him. The Q Brothers’ production transforms Othello into a rising hip-hop star and Iago into a jealous member of his entourage.

IAGO: “Othello’s rich, but he keeps me poor. / AH! / Well now it’s time to settle the score. / HEY! / He never lets me get my foot in the door / and this is why I hate the Moor.”

IVETTE FELICIANO: GQ plays Iago.

IVETTE FELICIANO: What do you think hip-hop brings out of Shakespeare that just a straight performance wouldn’t?

GQ: If you boil Shakespeare down, and you boil hip-hop down, to what’s left in the pot, the essence, the grit, is storytelling through poetry and musical language. That’s it. That’s all you have. When you bring it to a basic level, that’s what Shakespeare is; that’s what the best hip-hop artists are doing.

IVETTE FELICIANO: This isn’t the first time the Q Brothers have fused hip-hop with Shakespeare. 17 years ago, they created and co-starred in “The Bomb-itty of Errors,” based on the Bard’s “Comedy of Errors.” They’ve been performing hip-hop adaptations of Shakespeare ever since.

JQ: What Shakespeare was doing is exactly what we were doing. And we realized that, early on. Like, he took the Greeks and rewrote them. And we realized, ‘Oh, we’re just taking the classics from our day and rewriting them, too.’ So I think he’d be a big proponent of what we do.

OTHELLO: “O-to-the-T-H-E-double-L-O, / they stick with the swell flow like it’s velcro. / Classic as a shell-toe sneaker on a b-boy. / Take a trip with this star. I’m Leonard Nimoy.”

IVETTE FELICIANO: Postell Pringle plays the show’s title character.

POSTELL PRINGLE: It requires a certain level of participation back from the audience. When we tell you to, like, get your hands up, like, we are actually speaking to you. We’re telling you to get your hands up. You know what I mean? Just like you would in any other hip hop show that you, hip hop concert, that you would go to.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Jackson Doran plays Othello’s right hand man, Cassio.

JACKSON DORAN: I think what we provide is something that people can tune into that makes more sense in a contemporary context. And also, we’re doing something that traditional musical theater doesn’t do, which is we rap the entire thing from start to finish. We have a DJ onstage. We’re trying to change the game a little bit, in the sense of trying to do something different with traditional American musical theater and traditional Shakespeare.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Pringle believes the story of Othello’s rise and fall is heightened by the hip-hop setting.

POSTELL PRINGLE: Coming from nothing and making something out of yourself, that’s the story of hip hop all in itself. Making something from nothing. That’s what this character does. When somebody starts to corrode that, then you get to play with– the jealousy and the paranoia, as an actor– you dream for the opportunity to, like, play that scale of emotion. And then to get to the point where you get– where you descend into rage. Which– I don’t know, speaking somewhat personally, like, is something very cathartic as a black man in America.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Although race isn’t a prominent feature in “Othello: The Remix”, the show explores the idea of being an outsider in society, especially in its final song….

FULL CAST: “In a cold, dark, and unforgiving system, we struggle with our destiny. / When the world is crumbling, emerge from the rubble, and your love is gonna set you free. / I’m an extraterrestrial watching the world spin. / What am I supposed to do? Feel like I’m on the outside looking in.”

IVETTE FELICIANO: For the Q Brothers — who are part Indian — the song exemplifies their own personal experiences growing up as people of color on Chicago’s northwest side.

GQ: We create this stuff on the stage, but it’s all a representation for our lives. We were born and raised as aliens in a world, like, on the north side of Chicago where our dad was the darkest guy for miles and miles around. Like, we were camel jockeys and dot heads. We don’t look like it. But actually, that’s what we were called, many times. I’m figuring this out as we — as we do that last, final song to everyone in the audience. We look everyone in the eye, as much as we can, until the final phrase. And then we look up. But every time I say it, I find something new and different about it.

IVETTE FELICIANO: The Q Brothers and their cast mates are hopeful that in a year full of tensions and divisions, their take on “Othello” can help bring audiences of all different backgrounds closer in their experience of the show.

JQ: I think it’s important to find ways to connect with people who may not look or seem like you, always. And you look at our cast and you got two brown kids, a black kid, and a white kid. It’s like if we all think it’s funny, you’re all probably gonna think it’s funny, you know, or good, or interesting or whatever the adjective you wanna put on it.

OTHELLO AND CAST: “And I made it to the top! / No, we’re never gonna stop. / We ain’t gonna stop! / Yeah, we’ll always be around. / We’ll be around! / ‘Cause we made it to the top. / To the top! To the top! / And we’re never comin’ / Down, down, down!”

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