Playing Juliet/Casting Othello

Theatre Jacksonville for the third show of its 89th season, opened Caleen Sinnette Jennings’
Playing Juliet/Casting Othello with a run through May 9th at the Harold K. Smith Playhouse, 2032 San Marco. For Reservations call 396-4425.
In recent years, the repertory committee of TJ has been burning the midnight oil reading scripts and a number of new shows have been presented covering a wide variety of subject’s. Their current production according to the Director’s Notes of David Patton, is a play about power, human vulnerability and yes, race.
Playing Juliet/Casting Othello features nontraditional casting. To quote a l993 New York Times article, “nontraditional casting refers most often to cross-racial casting-placing a non-white in a role not specially written for a non-white actor. The Washington Post in l987 further defined it as “the use of actors of any race, sex, ethnicity or degree of disabilities in roles for which such factors are not germane to the development of the stage characters or the play.”
This play, is really two one act plays with the same theme and same actors and each has a play within a play. (Romeo and Juliet & Othello) . In Playing Juliet, a black female is cast as Juliet , and a white male as Romeo. The fictional theatre group in the play, New Vistas apparently strives to be multi ethnic. Alexis Robbins is Wendy, the Director and this is her first Shakespeare. Wendy has some ideas about nontraditional casting when it comes to age as well since Juliet (Shauntel Bennett) and Romeo (Zdravko Rozic) are both at least ten years too old to play the teenage lovers of this Shakespeare classic. On top of that ,in the play Bennett and Rozic have a very strong dislike for each other, and it is never a good idea to cast people who hate each other as lovers.
This is the first time I have ever seen Juliet’s nurse (Lauren Ousley) played by someone that is much younger than Juliet herself. Our Juliet accuses the director of purposely miscasting her, and feels that Shakespeare’s words are racist. It is now 12 days till opening and as an audience member it makes you wonder if the play’s Juliet played by Bennett and known as Georgia read the script before she accepted the role? Georgia’s boy friend Jimmy (Larry Knight) is not too keen on her acting and that does not help. Tom Trauger plays Dave, the stage manager who creates more tension by harassing Wendy’s methods of running rehearsals. Most of this gets resolved, but you will have to go to find out how.
Casting Othello happens several months later but same actors but playing different roles. Chris (Zdravko Rociz) is now the director, Wendy is playing Desdemona, Dave is playing Iago, and the pregnant Georgia is now Casio’s wife and Desdemona’s maid/nurse. Lauren Ousley is Lorraine, who was cast as Bianca, a woman of loose morals. With two weeks before opening, Lorraine quits, because she feels the script is racist. Again I wondered, why didn’t she read the script before she took the role? The big problem is who will play Othello? The person originally cast for the role quit. Ah, Jimmy, Georgia’s former boy friend, now husband, (Larry Knight) to the rescue. He has been secretly rehearsing with Wendy, and even though he has never been on stage, he is given the role. Larry Knight played Othello at Players by the Sea early this season and had rave reviews for his performance. Again, I will not reveal the ending but heck I will tell you it is happy!
This play is a peek at what goes on in the process of putting on a play, a sort of look behind the scenes. It is interesting but not entirely true; if I base it on the fifteen years I spent as an actor. Play scripts are usually thoroughly discussed and analyzed BEFORE the real direction begins. Rarely have I seen stage managers arguing with directors in front of the cast about procedures and policies. The play is none the less an eye opener for the average theatergoer and worth seeing for this reason.
Set Designer Kelly Wagoner gets credit for the least expensive set she has ever done, since it is an open stage with a few wooden boxes and chairs and little else. Tracy Olin coordinated the costumes which appeared to be the actor’s personal clothing.
This is a farewell performance locally for two of the actors; Zdravko Rozic and Alexis Robbins are both planning to move to New York. This is also a welcome board debut for Director David Patton, a Chicago transplant who honed his craft at the world famous Second City.
In the Theatre Jacksonville newsletter, Encore, you will find TJ’s Executive Director Sarah Boone’s interview with playwright Caleen Sinnette Jennings which will give you insight into the play’s origin. You can read it in advance at