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An Evening With Desdemona and Emilia

Shakespeare’s Othello receives a feminist, anti-domestic violence reading.


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The cast of "An Evening With Desdemona and Emilia" at Joe's Pub, New York City.

The statistics are shocking: One in four women and one in seven men are affected by domestic violence. Domestic and intimate partner violence does not discriminate between gender, sexual preference, race, class, or age. With all the focus on the pink ribbon cause of breast cancer, it’s little known that October is also Domestic Violence Awareness Month. To help raise awareness, an all-female celebrity cast fundraiser reading of Shakespeare’s Othello, titled “An Evening with Desdemona and Emilia,” was staged at New York City’s Joe’s Pub on October 27.

 

Safe Horizon, the nation’s leading organization dedicated to helping and empowering victims of domestic violence, presented the reading, which featured American Horror Story’s Lily Rabe (Desdemona), Miss America 2015 Kira Kazantsev (Bianca and Lodovico), Fun Home Tony award winner Lisa Kron (Emilia), ER’s Gloria Reuben (Othello), and LGBT activist StaceyAnn Chin (lago).

 

 There was something incredibly powerful in seeing women act out roles that have been so accepted and unquestioned as a part of our historic dramatic literature. While I studied Othello in high school, and later at university, I was taught to view it as a tragedy of race, of class, even of militarism and  masculinity—but I was never encouraged to interpret it as a pure and simple tale of domestic violence. The scene in which the insanely jealous Othello strangles his virtuous wife Desdemona in their bed has always been shocking to me. Equally shocking is the compound violence produced by Othello's paranoia, which includes the slaying of her lady in waiting, Emilia, even after she attests to Desdemona’s innocence.

 

Today, with accusations of infidelity being one of the leading causes of domestic violence, the scene is even more poignant. In this 400-year-old tale we see a code of masculinity operating—and it’s one which contributes to the current culture of sexual violence against women. Even though it’s Shakespeare, this play is full of verbal abusewomen are mistrusted and reviled, referred to as “false,” “impudent strumpet” and “subtle whore”. Even as Desdemona protests her innocence Othello says, “I will kill thee and love thee after.” The language may have changed but the dynamic has not.

 

Right until her last breath Desdemona protects her abuser and blames herself for provoking Othello. “Desdemona sounds like somebody who calls our hotline,” said Safe Horizon’s Deputy CEO Liz Roberts after the performance in a powerfully moderated discussion between the cast. “When women call our hotline and talk about being beaten within an inch of their life, it’s often as a result of infidelity. This is still in our culture today.” Out lesbian performer and playwright Lisa Kron said that the play depicts a marriage that is not based on love but on power. “Emilia had no independence—she’s thinking about her personhood, but that’s all she’s got.”

 

From the outside we can see the co-dependence,” said Lily Rabe of Desdemona’s reverential relationship to Othello. ER’s Gloria Reuben played her character of Othello with chilling insight into the psychological reality of many abusers. “Othello doesn’t trust love. It’s insecurity,” she said, that causes him to take his wife’s life. A female playing an abuser was a chilling reminder that not all perpetrators of DV are male—we have our fair share in the lesbian community, too.

 

Jamaican-born LGBT activist StaceyAnn Chin revealed that she has personally experienced domestic violence while in a lesbian relationship. “When I first came to this country, I spent two years in a relationship with a partner who hit me. I would talk about women’s rights at events and college campuses and be hit before or after the performance and then be silent.” She argued that instead of looking down on victims of domestic violence we need to understand that “there is no woman who cannot be abused.”

Miss America 2015, Kira Kazantsev, ended the conversation by drawing attention to Safe Horizon’s #PutTheNailinIt campaign which encourages everyone to “take a vow” against domestic violence. As a conversation starter that may help raise awareness, paint your left ring fingernail (on your ‘vow’ finger) purple to show your support. In social media simply use the hashtag #PutTheNailinIt to show your vow to end domestic violence. Or to donate much-needed funds, go to www.putthenailinit.org.

 

To learn more about preventing domestic violence got to safehorizon.org.  

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