By Neil Armstrong
Playwright and actor, Joseph Jomo Pierre, has been carrying around in his head the story of Titus Andronicus’ Aaron for five years before telling it.
His latest play, Shakespeare’s Nigga, explores two iconic Black characters in the bard’s work, Othello and Aaron, as they confront their creator. The play opens at Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace in Toronto on February 7 and runs until the 23.
Pierre, who was born in Trinidad and Tobago and grew up in Toronto, says the play has been a very hard fought journey because of the topic.
The self-proclaimed "child of Hip-Hop" says many people know him from his earlier play, Born Ready, in which the language was different from the fusion he uses in his new work.
He says some people did not feel comfortable with the title, not knowing how they would get promotion or funding for the show.
“I think on the other level, it has to do with the fact that it was dealing with slavery and a lot of people just don’t want to do slavery stuff,” Pierre said.
COMPLEXITY OF SLAVERY
He said that Black people don’t want to do something else about slavery and instead want to celebrate other things. While he agrees with them, he thinks that turning one’s back on slavery will result in many youth not having any idea of the complexity of slavery and how it is affecting them now. Pierre says he is dealing with slavery in a different way.
The York University BFA graduate says most people know Othello. ‘Aaron was the real dark brother in the room. He’s the one that’s way in the back but not a lot of people know about,” Pierre said, noting that Aaron appears in what is described as the most brutaland bloodiest of Shakespeare’s plays.
Pierre says Aaron is portrayed as such an evil character that he decided to try to understand why the character was doing what he did in the play.
“If you’re going to imbue Blackness with such evil, maybe there should be a context to what would drive a man to such ill,” he said about being a voice for Aaron.
He says there are parallels between Othello and Aaron and how they influenced each other in terms of perception. Shakespeare’s Nigga allows him to show the celebrated negro and the one that’s condemned.
Pierre says everything started to layer itself once he keyed on to relationships and what he wanted to talk about.
Having just done Born Ready and Hip-Hop (who stole the Soul), using a language that was never before on stage, the impetus was for him to continue in that vein.
“But is wasn’t the world of the slaves and the characters didn’t speak that language. When I tried to make them speak that language they wouldn’t because I think there was a discussion to be had in the language,” Pierre says about his veering away from the stereotypical language used by Black characters in slavery-themed works.
He decided that he would give his characters the same power in language as he gives to Shakespeare.
Regarding the word ‘nigga’ in the title, which is only used four times in the play, Pierre says the stance he has today may not be the one he has tomorrow.
“I might encounter things during my journey that will reflect how I view the word in the future. That’s why I’m so against burying the word, for it to be static, not allowing it to grow, not allowing the weight and the pain of it to exist in the world,’ he says.
“If we try to move away from all the things that have caused us pain and deny ourselves of that pain we’re limiting ourselves to the growth that we’ve actually had in the crucible.”
He wants everyone to be accountable for how they use the word.An important aspect to his work is his desire to represent the unrepresented on stage.
Shakespeare’s Nigga is described as subversive and poetic with the promise that “it will dare you to see Shakespeare in a whole new light.”
Pierre has been a playwright in residence at Obsidian Theatre, Factory Theatre, Theatre Passe Maurielle, the playwrighting group at Tarragon Theatre and the inaugural collective for Canstage's Festival of ideas and creation.
The play is presented by Obsidian Theatre Company, Canada’s leading culturally diverse theatre company, as part of the TD Then & Now Black History Month Series 2013.