If jealousy is green-eyed, what color is envy? Chartreuse, maybe, or viridian. Access, that's what New Yorkers have. I envy East Coasters this week because Chiwetel Ejiofor is appearing as Othello , with Ewan McGregor as Iago. I first saw him as the nameless Alliance operative in Serenity, and my artsy friends as the desk clerk/physician/taxi driver in Dirty Pretty Things.
Never mind my prejudice against most actors and the theatrical profession as shallow, pretty things, the irresponsible babysitters of the modern American soul. Ejiofor's performances are layered, man. He played a nameless, remorseless, True Believer villain in Serenity, one of the biggest one-dimensional cliches in action films, but between Whedon's writing and Ejiofor's performance, the character is frightening and plausible, one of those clean-cut functionaries who were drawn to support dictators overseas because democracy is so messy. When these professionals find themselves being used for specious ends by a Nixon or a Bush, a Cheney or a Kennedy or a fictional Alliance, they rationalize murder-for-hire with a made-up samurai code, and if you understood the big picture like they do, you'd be all too happy to ensure that those little brown people die beautifully. You hate the character's guts and want to see him die for what he's doing to your friends, laugh when he's confounded-- nobody does Brer Rabbit against the monsters like Joss Whedon-- and almost feel sorry for the son-of-a-bitch when his nose is rubbed in the vileness he's defending.
What could an actor like that do with a text as layered as Shakespeare? Both London and New York are giving this Othello good reviews. Apparently Ejiofor catches the sweetness of the character, that part of Captain Othello's soul that forgets about soldiering and discovers joy and tenderness: "O my soul's joy!.... Perdition catch my soul, but I do love thee-- And when I love thee not, Chaos is come again." -- which makes it all the more heartbreaking when chaos comes, and he, base Indian, murders a pearl worth more than all his tribe. The New Yorker review noted that Ejiofor was young for the part-- Othello is, after all, an older man finally settling down with the first woman he's known that wasn't the colonel's lady or a camp follower-- but that Ejiofor's dignity carries it off. Imagine what he's going to do with it when he's of an age to fully empathize with Othello's tenderness-- and subsequent horror-- at being granted the grace note of Desdemona in a violent, lonely life.
Maybe next year they can trade parts, with Othello set in a Southern military town, and the insecurities of a po' white Othello risen to military success, but naive about women, who makes the mistake of thinking the whole world honest because he himself is honest. Has anyone ever tried an all-black Othello, with the dynamics of race taken out of the mix? A high-yellow Iago and a dark skinned Othello? I've no idea what Ejiofor would do with Iago, but I'd like to see him try.
Some days I regret not being in the cultural center of things, usually when wading through the slushpile with a manuscript clutched to my breast, trying to forge a connection with publishers and agents. It's both startling and energizing to go to a convention and find myself surrounded by people smarter and more talented than myself, being able to chat with people who have the same concerns and awareness of a larger world than the one between their legs or ears or bellies.
But I don't envy these artists the struggle with brute survival a creative life requires in Chicago, Washington, or New York. A one room apartment costs more than our entire house and modest garden, no parking, no pets, no room for a pet, and certainly not a menagerie. A trip for a gallon of milk is a polar expedition. My buddy Wayne has to endure freezing bus stops, trains, automobiles and shank's mare for a trip to the post office that take me five minutes, fifteen if I decide to walk. Living in a college town helps; between magazine subscriptions, decent coffee beans, an understanding library and newstand, cable and the internets, there's not much intellectual stimulation lacking in Kalamazoo if you've sense enough to seek it out. Our neighboring suburb of Portage, a Republican enclave that never saw a development scheme it didn't want to suck, seems determined to turn itself into Houston North, with asphalt as far as the eye can see, travel times twice that of Kalamazoo, and a corresponding diminishment of lifestyle.
And I wonder if being in the center of things brings a distortion to thought that we escape in the flyover provinces; you only have to turn on five minutes of what passes for network commentary to see that for all their vaunted connections, money and power, their blind spots are greater than ours, with more catastrophic results. The janitor knows more about the boss than the boss knows about the janitor.