When David Oyelowo steps onstage at Off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop as the title character in Othello, which opens December 12, it will mark the classically trained actor’s first time in the role.
He has been fairly busy, of course. He was the first black actor to play an English king (for the RSC’s Henry VI: Parts I, II and III), played Orlando in Kenneth Branagh’s As You Like It, starred as Martin Luther King Jr. in the movie Selma, appeared in movie theatres this fall in Queen of Katwe, and was just awarded the OBE.
Previously, the closest he ever came to the Moor was “a scene study at drama school when I was at LAMDA in U.K.,” he says. “I’ve actually avoided it. As a black actor who has been afforded so many opportunities to do Shakespeare, it’s the obvious one. I pride myself in doing the unexpected, so I sidestepped it. This time I couldn’t.”
Three things changed his mind: Daniel Craig as Iago; Sam Gold as director; and James Bond franchise and Othello producer Barbara Broccoli, who, Oyelowo says, “is a very persuasive woman.
“After ten years of doing film work, I just knew it was time to get back to recalibrating what it is I understand to be storytelling,” he says. “You cannot engage in Shakespeare without becoming a better actor.”
There’s no difference in the way he approaches the Bard versus any other project. “My approach is to bring everything I know about human experience to these great, or not-so-great, men. Whether king or commoner, there is something so astute about how we’re human beings. Even if the language is dense or incredibly beautiful, I don’t focus on that. I try to mine the character and the play with truth.”
Happily, NYTW’s Othello and Iago aren’t at cross-purposes. “Daniel calls the play ‘humbling,’” Oyelowo says. “It forces you to look at yourself and step up. There’s no suspicion here. I trust him implicitly. The more acrimonious the playing, the more you must trust. I’ve found a kindred spirit in him. That means we’ll be beating ourselves up every performance.”
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