Threats force halt to Edmonton troupe’s version of Shakespearean drama

Threats bring down curtain on Edmonton play

EDMONTON — A community theatre says it has cancelled its production of Shakespeare’s “Othello” because of threats from people angered by a decision to cast a white woman in the title role instead of the traditional man of colour.

Volunteer-run Walterdale Theatre Associates in Edmonton issued a statement late Monday that said it regrets the cancellation, but it can’t continue because the safety of cast members has been threatened.

“This is a heartbreaking decision, but as a community of volunteers and artists, we can’t continue with a production where the safety of members of our cast has been threatened,” Walterdale president Adam Kuss said in a statement.

In an email, Kuss declined to discuss the nature of the threats and whether they were about race or gender.

The actor cast as Othello, Linette J. Smith, suggested the issue was her race.

She apologized on her Facebook page and said she did not think through the pain accepting the role would cause.

“My initial response to playing the role was that with a woman in the role that there might be discussion about women in power roles, a conversation about the marginalization of women,and normalization of differently gendered relationships,” she said.

“In my naivete, I thought the casting might bring those ideas to the story but, no matter how promising the benefits, the cost of excluding race was too much.”

Artistic director Anne Marie Szucs said the Walterdale’s vision of the play was a post-apocalyptic world in which traditional power structures were inverted and the focus was on the battle between the sexes.

Szucs, who was also the director of “Othello,” said members of the theatre community expressed their concerns about the casting as well.

“We understand and appreciate those concerns. We’re sorry this caused offence,” she said in the company’s statement.

“We will continue to build on the respectful interactions we’ve had with community members on this topic, and continue to engage with and welcome any groups or individuals who want to get involved in our productions.”

Kuss said the threats were referred to police. Edmonton Police spokesman Scott Pattison said no formal complaint was filed.

The production of the 400-year-old play about the powerful Moorish general of the Venetian army had been scheduled to open Feb. 8.

The cancellation is not the first time in Canada that controversy has dogged the staging of the Shakespearean tragedy.

Last November, a student theatre company at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., was forced to scrub its version after a backlash over its decision to cast a white woman in the title role of a black man.

Vagabond Theatre issued a statement on Facebook at the time that stated: “For the safety and mental health of our entire team we unfortunately feel the need to suspend our production.”

An apology was also issued to Queen’s black community.

Walterdale Theatre has operated in Edmonton since 1958.

Ken Trimble, The Canadian Press

Canadian Press